Many board members expect new Executive Directors (EDs) to step into their roles already armed with all the knowledge, experience and expertise to thrive as the organization’s leader. In reality, most EDs come to their roles with formal training or specialized expertise in just a handful of areas—they aren’t the “Jack of All Trades” that board members want them to be. Rather than being let down by lofty and unrealistic expectations, board members need to shift their focus towards filling in those knowledge gaps and providing support to help their ED. In turn, EDs need to be explicit with board members about the kind of support they need. Here’s some advice on how EDs and board members can work together to create the right kinds of support structures:
Boards and EDs Need To Be Proactive About Filling in Knowledge Gaps
When EDs first come into their role, they need to discuss with the Board Chair where gaps exist and where they see themselves needing the most support. This can be done simply with a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to provide shared documentation. Together, they need to establish where the biggest learning curves will be and create professional development support early on. No organization wants to find itself in a situation where the ED needs crucial information and can’t catch up quickly enough to move the mission forward. Training or coaching for both board members and EDs can help to fill these gaps and ensure that the organization won’t be caught completely unprepared when an issue arises.
Get Specialized Experts on Your Side
For those gaps an organization can’t fill, they need to turn to the help of specialized experts. We see this frequently when organizations run into a technical legal, financial or human resources issue. If one of the areas in need of support is significant, then the organization may want to consider bringing in a qualified individual to sit on the board. If it’s the smaller matter of bringing the ED up to speed on a relevant issue, then board members need to connect the ED to experts who can provide the right kind of support. Part of what makes a good board member is listening for when the ED is asking for support and when he or she is simply asking for input.
Executive Directors Need to be Explicit About How Their Board Can Support Them
Expectations are set in the way that EDs ask their board members for support. To engage effectively, board members need to know exactly what their Executive Director needs from them so they aren’t left playing the guessing game. EDs need to make very specific requests of board members and be clear about the resources they need to lead effectively. Questions for the board need to be framed in a way that pushes members into thinking more strategically about how they can support the ED in finding answers. The clearer the communication, the easier it is to find a solution.
For the ED to be in a position to exceed expectations, he or she needs the right kind of support from the board of directors from the start. Boards need to listen to what the ED requires and be proactive in their support. Likewise, EDs need to be precise about the resources they need to lead effectively. When boards and EDs come together to fill the gaps that new leadership brings, it means the mission can move forward in a more impactful way.