Conversations about Directors and Boards

Conversations with members of governing boards about how they expect an Executive Director to lead implementation of Board policies

This past year, I have had a series of conversations with members of governing boards about how they expect an Executive Director to lead implementation of Board policies, and about the basic interaction between boards and their staff leadership team.

I found that there were a few Frequently Asked Questions. Below are my answers:

Common Questions from Sitting Board Members:

How do you see an Executive Director being a part of increasing the diversity of our staff and creating an environment that supports equity and inclusion?

Organizational diversity is a critical priority, especially for a growing organization. There must be a culture of openness and inclusion, but this is not enough to accomplish the goal. While it can be said that culture derives from good leadership, this alone will not yield a truly fair workplace. There must be systems in place, as well as the associated training, methods, and monitoring necessary to verify implementation of those systems. I posted an article on how Equity Requires Systems on 01 MAY 2021.

To what extent has pursuing racial or other types of equity and inclusion been a priority in your work and/or your personal life? What were some of your core challenges or successes?

I am grateful that, in 30 years of working for a broad variety of organizations, I have been able to find workplaces and teams where fairness was a priority. However, expressed priorities do not address organizational risk. Goodwill is not enough to create safe spaces and a healthy environment of personal development for team members. The challenge is always the same: 

“How do we identify and overcome our systemic bias (even if unconscious) on issues such as gender and ethnicity? How do we satisfy and exceed simple regulatory requirements to create truly healthy paths of growth for our organization and our team members?”

The answers to these questions, while unique to each situation and location, always require the same foundation:

  • Metrics are a symptom, not a cure. While good sampling and statistics are essential tools for identifying an issue, addressing that issue is always a matter of policy, tools and methods – not snapshots of relative numbers at a particular moment. Quotas diagnose problems. They do not solve problems.
  • Recruiting is often driven by sensible and balanced leadership, but is then implemented by individual managers and/or HR staff members with only a single point of review or even without any objective outside input. While this is a common occurrence in resource-limited organizations where each team member must wear multiple hats, it is not possible to identify and address the serious risk and potential broad harmful effect of public-facing bias in the institution. This is true whether in print materials, online presence, or interactive tools and forms without diverse representation in one or all of design, approval, and oversight.
  • Multiple paths of communication are essential. For leadership to have any confidence in their assessment of the organization’s health, there must be both anonymous and accountable paths for team members and community members to express shortfalls, identify areas that need attention, or submit outright complaints. Systems being built to address chronic points of perceived unfairness are most effective in collaboration with some outside authority or independent auditor. As long as the process is transparent, and the system is accountable in both short and long term results, then progress can be made on any point of friction. I wrote an article about Promoting Healthy Workspaces on 11 AUG 2022

Of course, I have been exposed to prejudice, intolerance, and even casual cruelty. I have also seen the positive results that derive from sound systems implemented with empathy and patience. I believe in people. Incentives work. Transparency works. Accountability and reward are two faces of the same coin, and they only succeed when they can operate together.

Give some examples of how to motivate staff and how a Board  can engage Directors and managers in the decision-making process.

When hiring staff, the primary requirement is to communicate responsibilities and measures of success. People are able to excel when they know what they are working toward and on what basis they will be measured. Engage staff in their own goal-setting and results will jump even more. It has always surprised me, but has been consistently true in my experience, that few people plan for the short term and very few have meaningful schedules and milestones in place for the long term. 

My best results with staff hires have been when I’ve been able to facilitate developing personal growth plans. There is no separation between the professional and the personal. Professional is personal – perhaps moreso today than ever.

This is equally true at the supervisor level and above. Many groups seem to assume that the need for organizational support lessens or ends at a certain level of promotion. I don’t agree with this norm in our work places. Supervisors and team or project leaders will benefit from being engaged in planning and development of systems and methods for their own growth, the promotion of their direct reports and broader teams, and development of the organization as a whole.

While not every supervisor and team leader can practically participate in executive and board deliberations, there are always some opportunities for engagement. When team leaders meet to review projects and milestones, there is an opportunity to connect on larger organizational plans and progress as well. As with issues of fairness, having both accountable and anonymous paths to communicate on broad organizational goals and department level implementations will result in unexpected feedback. Front-line staff often has the insight needed for practical and proportional large scope decision making.

What do you see as the role and value of the board of directors in your leadership success?

On two occasions, I have been a director on a non-profit board. In both cases, I was recruited after engagement with the organization as an outside volunteer. I contributed to developing systems whether in fundraising or policy or technology or budgets or contracts – or all of the above.

Groups that have been growing or are planning a significant upcoming stretch goal – while effective at their previous size – often lack the systems to support a larger scale and scope of operation. This is the moment when I’ve been effective at offering support and guidance on developing systems for their expanded incarnation.

An effective Board engages on the myriad issues pertaining to strategy whether from professional expertise with constituents or contributors, regulatory and compliance requirements, technology path, risk assessment and mitigation, or finding synapses for collaboration with either relevant academic or constituent-facing organizations. Larger trends such as changes in national and regional political leadership, population transfers, turns of the economic cycle, environmental impacts, and evolving technology can all impact any or all of; charitable giving and other fundraising, availability and stability of volunteers, or the regulatory and continuous compliance environment within which the organization must operate and be successful. Guidance on these diverse and significant impacts is the essential contribution of any Board of Directors.

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