In a worst-case scenario, this dissonance results in the Board marginalizing the ED as just a passionate campaigner for the cause and writing off their opinion altogether, and the ED developing resentment and distrust towards their Board Members. The power struggle that ensues becomes a battle over dominance and recognition for the ways in which each can contribute to the success of the organization. Obviously, a situation like this never ends well! The toxic culture that develops as a result typically leads to turnover on the Board or the ED role (or both!). So, who’s right?
Whose opinion counts the most – the Board or the Executive Director?
You may have guessed it – neither matters more!
Let’s look at common misconceptions that the Board has of the ED and vice versa as well as discuss how both can overcome these falsehoods to lead better and strengthen the organization!
Misconceptions of the Executive Director
It’s all too common for the Board to perceive the ED as a dreamer – an idealistic leader who will prioritize organizational impact over everything else. The misconception is that while the ED is a passionate leader who has the organization’s best interests in mind, they don’t have the business acumen to carry out the organization’s strategic vision unilaterally.
The kernel of truth:
It is true that that ED is caring and idealistic (or at least the best ones are) and that they can’t lead alone – that’s why there’s a Board to help guide the organization in achieving its vision.
The whole story:
However, this misconception is wrong in that it implicitly says that the ED doesn’t have anything of value to offer on the business side of the equation. EDs are accustomed to doing the difficult job of uniting staff and volunteers around a single mission to best serve their audience while making the kinds of high-level decisions that determine who they serve and how they serve them, and this is no small task. So, yes it might be true that EDs are taking a different perspective to leading the organization than the Board, but it doesn’t mean that they are any less capable of leading!
Misconceptions of the Board
On the other side of the equation, it’s common for jaded EDs to view Board Members as out of touch businesspeople who are overly concerned with the financial viability of the organization. Board Members may also be seen as having less of a stake in the organization because it’s not their full-time gig. Because Board Members are in the role due to the successes they have found in their careers they may be accustomed to being in a position of strong leadership and making difficult decisions. As a result, their straight-forward rationality in challenging times can be seen as cold or calculating in a way that’s in direct contrast with the personal passion that the ED brings to their role.
The kernel of truth:
The Board is supposed to act in a way that is more impartial to ensure that the strategic decisions being made are feasible and in the best interest of the organization. They need to be level-headed and act shrewdly, especially when the stakes are high, to ensure appropriate oversight in leading the organization forward.
The whole story:
Their arms-length perspective may make them less entrenched in the day-to-day activities of the organization, but that objectivity is a good thing to leverage for the overall strength of the organization. In fact, this objectivity is absolutely crucial to their fiduciary and governance duties – it’s the reason you have a Board in the first place!
How to Overcome Both to Lead Better
A Board needs to trust that their ED is a talented leader who has the experience needed to run an organization well. They obviously looked at the ED’s previous experience before hiring them, so they know that the ED is qualified to lead well. Therefore, the Board should trust that the ED can bring a level of fiscal responsibility, managerial aptitude, and strong collaboration that’s required for the role.
And an ED needs to trust that their Board has the experience needed to ask the right questions and advise well. The Board’s guidance will draw on their areas of expertise and pull from other professional backgrounds, and that’s a good thing! Organizations can benefit greatly from the diversity of experience that Board Members bring to the table.
…Do you sense a trend here that trust is the most vital part of a Board and ED leading well together? The key to improving the relationship between the Board and the ED is mutual trust that respects the experience and perspective that each brings to their leadership role. With that foundation in place, you can:
Remember, genuine collaboration (instead of working together out of necessity) is a crucial part of leading better together! Keep everyone talking – encouraging honesty, transparency, and authenticity to build that trust.
Now Go and Do It!
Once you know what you need to do, it’s time to go and do it! Aim to take the following steps to cultivate the relationship between your Board and ED:
If the relationship is already too damaged to achieve this kind of close working relationship, seek outside help to facilitate a turnaround. Sometimes, bringing in a neutral party to facilitate this kind of bridge building is the best thing you can do to repair that broken trust and ensure that everyone feels heard and respected to move the organization forward.
When you have conflict between your Board and Executive Director, lean on a nonprofit consulting firm for help! Bringing in an impartial third-party to help get the organization back on track is a great way to get your leadership team working together again. Help your organization to achieve more by aligning your ED and Board on your strategic direction. Contact us today to find out more about how our nonprofit board advisory services can benefit your organization!
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