Insider’s Guide to the Relationship between Executive Directors and Boards of Directors

Recently, I’ve talked with someone seeking to become an Executive Director of a non-profit organization. He’s terrifically qualified and I’m sure would be great leader for a mid- to large-size organization. The only area in which he lacks experience is working with a Board of Directors. And, while not insurmountable, that is a significant gap.

While nothing beats personal experience, I’ve shared with him my own learning about how Boards operate to give him a leg up on other candidates. Here are some key takeaways from my 20+ years working with Boards:

1) The Executive Director has a completely different relationship with the Board than do any senior staff, and nothing prepares you for it.

Prior to joining City Harvest as its Executive Director in 1994, I worked with Board committees and Board members, as well as serving on Boards and helping form them. Certainly, those experiences gave me some awareness of how to work with these elite volunteers. Honestly, however, nothing could have prepared me for what it was like being an Executive Director. There’s simply no other role quite like it.

All of a sudden, the buck completely stopped with me – which was a given, except that there were 27 people with different standards and desired outcomes. Which “buck” mattered the most? Who wielded the most power? How much should I tell the others about one or another Board members requests? Did I really have to deal with each individual concern, issue, complaint, idea, inspiration, request?

The answer to the last question was “YES!”

And the other questions? Gradually, I learned that the Board as a whole and members individually had no idea what the answers were or should be. Part of my job was to work out the answers to the other ones, using every tool in the book to enlist the cooperation of the Board as a whole.

I relied on my staff, I relied on colleagues in similar positions, and I talked often to my father who served as co-CEO of the American Bible Society and then as CEO (aka General Secretary) of the United Bible Societies. All provided me with invaluable information, suggestions, support, and venting space. Yet, at the end of the day, I carried on my shoulders the entire burden of managing the Board.

From the perspective of managerial effectiveness, I wanted it that way. Many staff carrying multiple messages would only confuse things. Yes, staff could interact with and help the Board – only with my full knowledge and agreement and consent.

Sad to say, I also needed to be the chief liaison with the Board from a political perspective, in order to maintain my position as Executive Director. I had reached the top of the non-profit heap and was a great target for someone who wanted to have my position, visibility, influence, and power. And, as I found, there is no better way for staff to oust an incumbent Executive Director than by working behind the scenes with one or more ambitious Board member who seeks the pinnacle of volunteering: being Chairman of the Board of a prestigious non-profit organization. I told him that I believe I was no longer at City Harvest largely because, while recuperating from a hip replacement, I was out of regular touch with the Board. While other factors undoubtedly were at play, I am certain that the KOD (kiss of death) was my lack of regular contact with and hands-on management of the Board.

That leads nicely to my next lesson.

2) The “care and feeding of the Board” is at least 50% of an Executive Director’s job.

My colleague estimated he would need to spend 25 to 40% of his time focused on the Board. Au contraire, I said. I could never have handled my Board responsibilities if I spent less than 50% of my time with them. That was the experience of my father and other colleagues. Few outsiders believe that this is necessary. I’m here to say that Executive Directors listen to these outsiders at our own peril.

I remember telling the then-Chairman of City Harvest’s Board about that rule of thumb and his thinking that a ridiculous amount of time. He told me not to spend so much time on the Board – he wanted the organization to get more of my attention. Fortunately, I was pretty seasoned by this time and completely ignored his request. He didn’t get that, by working with Board members individually and as a whole, I was giving the organization my full attention. (Years later, he acknowledged that he now knew better.)

The reality is that an Executive Director must spend a lot of time developing relationships with every Board member and each Board Committee and the Board as a whole, in order to achieve any agreement and forward movement on the organization’s agenda. I can’t fathom how I would have gotten approval for one Action Plan and two Strategic Plans if I hadn’t invested major time and thought into “working the Board” – all 17 to 33 (or more) Board members. I talked, asked questions, listened, pleaded, flattered, cajoled, “talked turkey,” made alliances, courted, appealed to ego and ambition, flirted, involved, confided in, strategized, mediated, meditated, dreamed, vented, cried, cheered, invited, thanked, and more – anything I could think of to do, I did. All of it was in order to find out what various Board members thought, wanted, feared, hated, liked, desired, and needed. Then I took that information and put it through my own mental sieve. Only then was I ready to work with my senior staff to devise the processes, strategies and scripts that would yield Board consensus and forward movement for the organization.

And that leads to the third lesson.

3) Board members spend 90% of their time elsewhere and 10% on their Board membership, if we’re lucky.

The reasons for this are obvious: Board members have occupations and lives that fill their minds and calendars. We want people on our Boards who have money, contacts, clout and hopefully good sense. If we have to sacrifice anything, it’s the good sense – because we need their money, contacts and clout to make the organization’s work possible.

The consequences of the 90/10 rule are so far-reaching, I can only name a couple here. I emphasize that understanding the cause of these consequences is key to reducing and even eliminating the frustration experienced almost universally by staff leaders.

The most pervasive symptom of the 90/10 rule is that Board members seem to “check their brains at the door” of the Board room. It can seem that Board members forget almost all they knew from one meeting to another, and that they never read the materials painstakingly prepared by staff. Optimally, Board members will read materials before the meeting. Assuming they will not is a far better rule of thumb. Board members are busy, their time filled with other priorities. Generally, the time they set aside to attend a Board meeting is all the time they can spare for the non-profit. So it behooves the Executive Director to prepare crisp, bullet-pointed written reports and then present short, purposeful verbal reports at the Board meeting.

The wise Executive Director will talk before the meeting with as many Board members as possible, to lay the groundwork for any discussion and decision that will occur. If there is little time to spend talking with individual Board members, the Executive Director needs to focus on the most influential – or consider postponing the topic until a later time and then spend as much time as needed to educate Board members and allay concerns before the next meeting. A Board meeting is no time for surprises for the Executive Director. And an Executive Session without the Executive Director is to be avoided at all costs – it means you’ve lost the Board’s confidence.

Another consequence of the 90/10 rule is that any one Board member who does spend a lot of time volunteering or working with staff will have an inordinate amount of power and sway within the Board. Often, other Board members will think: “well, s/he spends so much time on it, he must know what’s going on, so I’ll listen to him…” In the meetings, other Board members will often defer to this Board member, making sure to solicit his or her opinion before any decision. The smart Executive Director quickly makes an ally of this Board member.

Founders often fall into this category. Regardless of the amount of money they give and/or get, founders usually receive great respect and deference from all other Board members. If the founder does not like the Executive Director, it does not matter how well the Executive Director does her/his job technically. That Executive Director is not long for his or her job – a lesson I learned at New York Restoration Project.

In sum, Board management can make staff management look and feel simple. However, bearing these three lessons in mind, an Executive Director can be more successful at the job of managing a Board of Directors.