A half a dozen years ago I had a lightbulb 💡 moment at a nonprofit leadership conference. The speaker, Bob Harris, passed around laminated cards that said:
Four simple words. Certainly not rocket science. But they were exactly what I’d needed to hear at that time.
This handout contained unbiased, outsider validation of what I had known all along but hadn’t felt bold enough to articulate: working with a micromanaging board was not OK. Dealing with directors who were overly involved in the day-to-day management of the organization was making my tough job, tougher. And making what should have been a fun job, a constant battle.
Changing the culture of the board and improving the relationship between our board and staff took many years and a lot of effort by everyone involved. Ultimately, though, it came down to understanding the distinction between management and governance that made the biggest difference.
Governance, which is the primary duty of the board, involves strategic planning, goal setting, and oversight. This is very different from management which is concerned with day-to-day decision making and operations.
Helping both board and staff understand their unique roles - and how they ought to effectively interact - is key to moving toward a drama-free leadership experience. When we all stop struggling for power - whether overtly or more surreptitiously - we’re able to accomplish more and create better outcomes. Too many players come to the table with misaligned intentions or misguided expectations.
One practice that I’ve found helpful in setting the stage for productive work is through the use of a board orientation program. Starting every board year (and/or each new member) with a clear and specific review of roles, responsibilities, policies, and expectations helps keep everyone on the same page. And while most professionals assume they know what it means to operate a nonprofit, a good orientation can outline what it actually entails.
If you don’t have a formal orientation process - or if your process consists of sending a link to a bunch of files for review - I want to encourage you to start one. It doesn’t have to be complex or overly time consuming. In fact, I have an orientation slide deck template that you can customize for your own use. It includes (nearly) everything you’ll want to cover with your board members so that you don’t have to start from scratch - just fill in the blanks. You can get that template here: https://docs.google.com/presen...
And here are a few tips from the leadership course I offered in 2020:
That'll do it for this series on the basics. I know there are a million other basic topics to discuss, but communication strategy, value proposition, doing less, and board orientation are often overlooked. Dialing in on just these four topics will literally transform your organization - and create ripples of improvement in every other area.