Nonprofit boards and their chief executives are often misaligned. Failure to collaborate effectively is almost assured when communication breaks down and usually results in an exasperated and exhausted executive along with disinterested board members.
So given that communications is essential to good governance, let’s “decode” some of the most common terms in governance and explore what they could mean for executives and their boards. I’ve organized this around key words that are used in board/executive discussions and how I believe they are “heard” by each party. As such, I’ll present the word, then what the executive is likely to hear or think, what the board member/board chair is likely to hear or think, and finally the opportunity opened up by the conversation.
1) The Word: Deficit
Executive: “LAYOFFS! OMG – this is totally not my fault. What do I do now?”
Board member: “My leader has been asleep at the wheel – a failure. It’s time for cuts or our organization is headed towards extinction.”
The opportunity: This can start a conversation on how one calibrates expectations for fiduciary responsibility of the board with the executive and her team’s abilities to manage against a budget.
2) The Word: Sustainability
Executive: “We are FLUSH with money” OR “Why are you asking me about tomorrow, when I’m focused on today?”
Board member: “I’m so glad we have appropriate systems and infrastructure in place for the long term” OR “Our fiscal house is on fire! We need to raise money now!”
The opportunity: The job of a board member or executive is to think about yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Reframing financial stress to focus on financial sustainability can help guide a conversation to what is best in the long-term for the organization.
3) The Word: Transition or Succession
Executive: “I’m not dead yet! Seriously, if they want to talk about who will succeed me, I may as well leave now.”
Board member: “This is my nightmare. Maybe we don’t need to deal with this since my executive isn’t leaving.”
The opportunity: Transitions are a natural part of the life of an organization. Being prepared for transition, whether accidental or planned, is critical for stability. The board can and should lead a discussion on its own succession planning and model behavior for the executive.
4) The Word: Junior Staff
Executive: “My team is so young and inexperienced, but they are all I can afford. I don’t know what to do with them. How do I help them grow?”
Board member: “How are you holding them accountable and are they really your leadership pipeline?”
The opportunity: While the board hires and fires just one employee – the executive – it can help the executive set a tone for staff expectations and reward those who exceed them.
5) The Word: Governance
Executive: “I do NOT need people watching over me. I just need a board that does their job.”
Board member: “The last thing I need is more work…”
The opportunity: To reframe the conversation around governance so that it becomes about smoothing the flow of work in order to build a reference base for the board to make smarter decisions.
6) The Word: Board Meeting
Executive: “Ugh, my staff spends hours preparing for these things and no one comes, no one cares.”
Board member: “Not another one! I am so tired of being told things. Maybe you could ask me my opinion? Ask for my advice?”
The opportunity: Board meetings are THE place to put into practice effective communications around governance. Use meetings to wrestle with difficult issues, help board members buy into the mission, and help support your chief executive.
Nonprofit boards and executives don’t have to be misaligned. With clear communications and effective decision-making processes, board members will leave meetings excited and executives will leave with the direction they need to succeed.