“I am so frustrated. My board is made up of some wonderful passionate and well intentioned people, but they are absolutely hopeless in giving me any constructive feedback on how I and my senior team are travelling. We are flying blind you know””
This was the opening remark from a seasoned not for profit CEO I recently met for a cup of coffee. The purpose of the chat was for me to spruik about what we are doing at Cause & Effective. As you can see from the response to my benign pleasantry “How are things going Margaret” we didn’t talk too much about Cause and Effective but we did go up hill and down dale about the CEO/Board dynamic.
Thankfully by the end of our coffee and cake Margaret had calmed down considerably due mainly to assurances that from my experience she is not Roberta Caruso and that many other CEO’s have felt a similar sense of unease with their boards. We also discussed some ideas about how to overcome this problem which she promised she would try.
In my view the CEO/Board relationship is so critically important to organisational effectiveness. To quote Richard T Ingram “Nowhere else can the chief executive seek the kind of moral and substantive support he/she consistently needs except from his/her board”. So why do so many CEO’s feel unsupported?
From my experience both as a CEO and not for profit board member I have found that two factors are often at play here.
The first has to do with the nature and make up of not for profit boards. In nearly every case board members are volunteers, they are there to do good. The last thing they want is to have to deal with dramas involving the CEO. This reality prompts thinking: like this:
If we don’t ruffle the CEO’s feathers by saying we aren’t happy with this or that we avoid any unpleasant discussions. Besides if we push the CEO too far they may leave and then we are in a worst pickle and will have to step into the breech until a new person comes on board.
The solution is to let sleeping dogs lie and say nothing. The irony here is that in attempting to not upset the CEO by giving honest feedback, the no feedback strategy can cause even more problems – just ask Margaret.
The second factor is the lack of an objective feedback mechanism. Sure, many boards have convoluted CEO appraisal processes buried deep in a Board Operations Manual but these tend to be seldom used due to their formality, poor functionality and focus on an annual event which invariably is postponed because some key people conveniently can’t make the meeting.
In an attempt to fix these issues we have been recommending the following approach and have been receiving positive feedback. Initially we coach boards on their responsibilities, particularly in providing oversight and assistance to the CEO. We also point out that by their nature not for profit board members are givers and they need to reserve some of this generosity for their CEO and if this involves a fair dose of tough love, so be it. We also recommend that each Board member asks and answers 4 questions each quarter (some ask these monthly, others six monthly or annually) . The CEO asks themselves the same questions.
the questions themselves are focused on 4 key areas and are aimed at elevating discussion beyond the colour of staff uniforms or whether one is worn at all. The questions are:
- Did the organisations social impact grow over the period?
- Is the CEO ensuring that a proper human resource base is developed and maintained to sustain social impact growth?
- Are risks being appropriately managed?
- Is a high performance culture being developed and maintained.
By regularly asking key questions such as these boards can have constructive discussions with their CEO and provide timely feedback and support. We will let you know how Margaret faired with this approach.
Author: This post is by Chris Gandy MAPS, the Founder and Principal of Cause and Effective (www.causeandeffective.info) – a group utilising their knowledge and experience to help cause-based organisations to make even greater social impacts. You can now follow Chris on Twitter.