This post concludes a brief series sharing highlights from my earlier master's-level research on the board/executive director relationship. My first post outlines the premise of the research. The second post describes theoretical perspectives underpinning this work. The third post shared the key findings. Today, I offer my takeaways.
It had been a long time since I last recalled the "big news" of the research described in this series: those ideas that informed my thinking as a researcher and budding nonprofit scholar and challenged some of the assumptions about "how things work" as a novice board member.
Today, with the benefit of several years of life and board experience, I'm reading those "big" findings in more nuanced ways. As I close out this series, I'd like to reflect on what I'm seeing today.
The director-centered organization. Researcher Me received evidence of the executive director's central role as an example of the models I discovered while preparing for the field work. I mentioned in the last post that, while I was surprised to find such clear evidence in an organization officially represented by a traditional hierarchy, it made sense. My understanding at the time was simplistic, much like my simplistic view of my role as a novice board member. But the pivotal location of the ED within the organization ultimately resonated.
At the time, I remember marveling at the power - largely unrecognized - that accompanies the ED's information gatekeeper role. In many organizations, what the board knows comes primarily (if not exclusively) through an ED filter. The potential for abuse was not lost on me. Today, I am just as aware of that power, even as I understand how that filter facilitates the board's ability to make informed decisions and avoid detail overload.
Rather than encourage suspicion, I would today counsel boards to do two things: First, acknowledge the equal, but different, leadership responsibilities that they share with the chief executive. Embrace them, discuss them openly, and find the appropriate way to make the collective effort work for the organization. Second, take responsibility for educating yourselves about the agency and the mission area. Don't place the sole burden for your capacity to make the best decisions possible on the shoulders of your ED. Be clear about identifying what you need from your executive, in what formats. Don't expect him/her to guess.
Unrealistic board expectations. I've been unconsciously attempting to address this issue - here and elsewhere - since this research closed. At the time, I read "unrealistic expectations" as rejecting the notion of the all-knowing, all-wise, over-involved board sitting atop the organizational chart. Today that clarity is about making the most of that precious leadership time. How do we engage board members, where do we focus their attention and energy? Do our board job descriptions place members in the middle of management functions (inviting micromanagement) or at the leading edge of the mission - exploring, deliberating, connecting toward the organization's vision of the future? Are our meetings structured for that future-focused governance work? Do our members have the capacity, support, information, etc., to make the most of the limited time they have to serve?
Dual organizational charts/separate subscultures. Today, I see how these two originally separate findings are intertwined. I'll discuss them here as one. While I don't encourage keeping two organizational charts, as the case study agency had done, I do recommend spending time collectively understanding and describing the ways in which work is done and how people interact. That may or may not resemble the formal organizational structure. It may or may not require adjusting the latter to better fit reality.
How is the mission communicated and enacted across the organization? How are responsibilities distributed, and how do all of those efforts contribute to organizational success and well being? Board, staff and volunteers should understand and appreciate what the others bring to the table and how each of those individual sets of responsibilities create the whole.
That lack of understanding contributed to the existence of separate subcultures that I witnessed during my field research. The silo around the board was particularly thick: board members had no idea what staff and volunteers really did; volunteers and staff knew nothing about the significant governance responsibilities that the board assumed on the agency's behalf. The potential for misunderstandings that lead to conflict are vast in this kind of environment. The likelihood that full mission success will elude the agency, because the various subcultures are operating in isolation - or worse, opposition - is equally large. The "who are these people to tell us..." resentment threatens morale.
Confidentiality commitment does not allow me to share details of the rest of the story. There is a "rest of the story," it's ugly, and it is related to this final takeaway. A very public breakdown occurred months after my research was complete. It was not hard to see that, behind the public event was a more fundamental and pervasive issue that I saw in my interviews and observations: different groups within the organization operating under very different assumptions about how to advance the mission on which they all agreed.
Was this multi-part reflection worth the time and space I gave it? For many readers, the answer may be "no." For me, though, it was a much-needed opportunity to revisit, rethink and ultimately remember early context for what has unfolded in the years since I completed this study.