“I’m from your Board of Directors and I’m here to help…” These words illustrate the worst-case scenario of a board and chief executive that are misaligned. The board of any nonprofit or foundation has three main jobs, crucial among them hiring, nurturing, and if needed, firing the chief executive.
However, on a day-to-day basis, supporting the chief executive in her role is crucial to the near-term success and long-term stability. Helping your top executive succeed is all-to-often left off the formal agenda.
So, what can a board do to help support/manage its chief executive? We have identified three main strategies – serving as a thought partner, being a network builder, and acting as a candid source of feedback for the executive’s professional development.
Be a Thought Partner
Where it works well, CEOs tend to rely on the boards to think about and noodle on big strategic questions. I’ve seen CEOs who will call up board members and float ideas, help make a pivot, leverage their expertise, etc. But the opportunities are much broader. One opportunity is to “grow” the executive. The board can create learning experiences, share personal anecdotes, and provide professional development opportunities both formal and informal. Beyond that, the board members can serve in a mentoring function. This may be crucial to a new chief executive and/or executives at key inflection points in their lives.
A board member can also play a crucial role in questioning and challenging conventional wisdom and group-think. Whether the board member is authentic, or simply venturing to bring another perspective, this kind of discussion at the board level will often drive an executive to think through all options and determine whether there is a truly Plan B if a new idea is implemented.
In addition, a board can also encourage an executive to try new things in a fear-free environment. Innovation and change are hard. However, powerful support and urging from the board to innovate can lead to new ideas, new streams of revenue, and even new approaches. Thinking outside the box can and may lead to experimentation in social entrepreneurship, revenue generation, and resource maximization.
Help the Chief Executive Expand Her Networks
A high-functioning board will often have representation from diverse communities. These boards can help expand the networks and spheres of influence for their chief executive.
As well, the board can be loud voices beyond the organization and provide a resource for the organization by tapping into their network to help meet the mission.
Among these opportunities, board members can and should open doors to their institutional and personal relationships. Board members can also draw on past experience to bring more funds, expertise, alliances, and partnerships where they may be lacking. Keep in mind; if you have a strong board, they are likely to be influential people.
The board members may also be uniquely positioned to leverage media and social media connections. If successful, earned media coverage and social media momentum can drive support, promote the mission or even highlight special projects.
Providing Appropriate Feedback (to Encourage Growth)
This is a partnership between the board and the executive. This partnership can and should take the form of an annual performance conversation. However, to be most effective, it can also include on-going feedback about the executive’s performance, provide appropriate support, honest & candid conversations, and support in shoring up areas of growth and professional development.
Key among this feedback should be clear expectations of the executive. While many board chairs find it difficult, having a conversation on annual basis and setting personal goals for performance of the chief executive may be crucial to ensure that there is a clear definition of success for the role. Just as a board would expect an executive to review her employees, so too does there need to be a performance assessment of the chief executive. Boards help most when having an honest and transparent conversation about expectations for performance.
However, the executive shouldn’t have to go it alone. The board should encourage the executive to create a culture of accountability. In the business sector, it’s the norm. Where the board institutes a performance review with the executive, it can help empower an entire human resources system to support her efforts.
There is NO SUBSTITUTE for creating a safe space and supportive environment for the executive. She will need a kitchen cabinet aside from the Board Chair and possibly even outside the organization.
An executive may not be in a position to share all of her frustrations and the things she struggles with the board for fear of sharing too much with her “Boss.” However, executives need space to reflect on some of these organizational challenges.
A kitchen cabinet and/or coach is essential. The board can provide the external resources and help the executive employ them. Whether they are a coach or the unique expertise available on an ad-hoc basis, the board can utilize its network to find those resources.
In conclusion, as a board member, you bring a view from the outside. It’s an essential tool to broaden the potential impact of your chief executive and to expand her worldview to find innovative solutions.