The Very Good but Seriously Flawed Executive Director

No executive director has all gifts, and many are brilliant. But what about the nonprofit CEO who is terrific in some ways but whose strengths are matched with some troubling flaws as well?

It's uncomfortable to be a board member when you have such a CEO. On one hand, it's exciting to be around her vision and her energy, and it's inspiring to see the work that is getting done. On the other hand, maybe the CEO has a blindspot for finance, and you're worried that financial problems may be leading up to a crisis. Or perhaps the executive is wonderful with staff, but he doesn't seem to be building connections with partners and funders.

Sometimes there's nothing really wrong with an executive director, but nothing really right, either. Things are going okay, but you can't help but feel that the organization is positioned to be more proactive with more ambitious goals and visions.

In most cases, board members don't act boldly. We wait and see, and eventually we term-off the board. But in other instances, board members do the opposite: let the executive go and seek a new leader to work towards an audacious vision. What are the most common scenarios, and how do they play out?

The executive is good at many things, but not . . .

The trap: "She probably ought to go, but I'm not sure we could find anyone better."

Non-catastrophic concerns about executives typically emerge in three types:

  • "Our executive director is inspiring when she talks about what we do," said one board member. "But we keep having deficits. We talk about cutting expenses or raising more money, but neither ends up happening."
  • "We feel great about our executive, but the staff seems unhappy," says a board member at a different organization. "Some senior people have left abruptly and we think the staff is trying to communicate real unhappiness with him."
  • "Things seem to be going fine, but we've heard some unsettling things." A board member may have heard that an event went poorly, that a funder has become unhappy with the organization, that there is nepotism on staff, or other rumors.

In the first case with ongoing financial problems, there is much at stake: the board must act as a whole to insist on financial clarity and implementation of a plan of action. Case studies that document nonprofit failure commonly point to a suspension of doubt on the part of board members: "Well, things aren't that bad and I guess things have worked out before."

But "wait and hope" in these instances often puts the whole organization at risk. As a board member you must either work with other board members on a plan with teeth, or you should leave the board after giving your warning as strongly as you can. In other words: when serious finances are at stake, you must get the board to act or you should leave.

On the other hand, when it seems that staff is unhappy, the board needs to look into the causes and make a judgment call about whether the executive should be supported or cautioned. A new or a strong executive may be making bold decisions that some make some staff resentful -- but the decisions are appropriate and should be supported. In other situations, staff discontent may be due to legitimate concerns about the executive. In many cases where a scandal erupts (such as sexual harassment or misuse of funds), some staff know about it before the board does.

As in the instance of hearing rumors, the board (or the leadership) should meet with the executive and agree on a way that the concerns can be investigated fairly. If the CEO won't agree to an investigation, the full board should know, and make a conscious decision about what to do (rather than the default decision to do nothing).

The competent executive who isn't a star

A different kind of good-but-flawed executive is the competent manager who doesn't have the ambitious vision or the high-profile persona to which the board aspires. "He's very good but he's not a star," said the board member of a nonprofit. "He's not a great public speaker, and we could be getting far more money and attention than we are." Or, "We should have a CEO who is a leader in the field. Instead she's kind of homey, and doesn't seem to be driven to bigger things."

This scenario sometimes is born out of success: an executive may have been outstanding in the position a few years ago may now be seen as inadequate . . . as a result of his or her own achievements.

Organizations can seldom create bigger dreams than their executives can imagine, and substantial changes can seldom occur without changing to a new executive. Ask yourself: are our dreams unrealistic for this organization? Should we just do what we can to supplement the executive, but lower our aspirations for the organization?

If you and a few other board members feel strongly enough that the organization needs to have bigger ambitions and an executive to match, be sure that you are willing to see it through. The worst of worlds is when strong board members let a flawed executive go, then swiftly depart themselves. Be sure you have a core of three or four board members who will stay at least three years through the transition.

The paradox and the judgment

The other trap for unhappy boards is to decide to do an evaluation of executive performance after a long period of not having done so. In such cases there is often not even an up-to-date job description. Try to avoid a long, tense process that tires everyone out and unhappy board members just leave in frustration. Put the issue on the table rather than engage in a series of surrogate battles over process and wording.

The tension between high aspirations and realistic expectations is one that we all know in our personal as well as in our work lives. What's good enough? What's too much to ask for?

The answer lies less in a diagrammable decision tree than in an assessment of factors and ultimately, a judgment call. It's hard to make a judgment call as an individual, even more difficult to do so through consensus on a board.

The most important part? Don't just let it drift, and eventually drift away, yourself. Have an explicit, probably uncomfortable discussion, and do so without the CEO present. The right judgment call might be keep the question alive so that as the situation evolves -- as it surely will, in some direction -- the board is more prepared to act.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado and writes its Board Cafe column. In both her former consulting practice with boards and as a board member herself, she has seen boards make many good and many poor decisions. She herself is also the flawed CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits.

Comments (6)

  • Anonymous

    Given the scenarios in this article, exactly when did the board members get together to determine, articulate and share ED requirements and expectations with the ED? Action prior to unmet and non-verbalized expectations would seem more prudent?

    Dec 10, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Yes, every person learns the first time they report to a board that 23 people can have 23 very different ideas of what success for an organization and the CEO looks like. The board should also realize they might be getting exactly what they asked for..... You can not make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. If the organization was in need of bold moves to be positioned correctly then don't expect that to happen without some shockwaves and fall out.

    Dec 12, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Could there possible be an ED who is not flawed?! Everyone has strengths & weaknesses, even though busy volunteer board members would prefer their own ED is super-human & can do it all. And if a board hires someone with some capacity in all arenas, I expect they will end up with competently average performance at best, mediocrity at worst. Far better for boards to understand that their primary responsibility is to hire leadership .... all other needs can be trained or bought. If your ED is capable of conveying your vision and mission with passion and authenticity, if your h/she inspires others to action -- to give money & time, to work harder and better, well: you've got the gold! I think my responsibility as an ED is to be an inspirational leader and a strategic analyst. I inform my board of my own perceived weaknesses (often, so they will hear!) presenting them simultaneously with solutions and creative compromises for filling the gaps. An organization's various needs are fluid, and respond to external changes over time, but compelling leadership and strategic thinking are the essential, perennial, non-negotiable qualities every board member should seek to acquire.

    Dec 12, 2014
  • Having served as an Interim ED for many organizations, often when an executive has been forced out, the missing component is generally communication - the board chair and ED don't talk regularly, the ED isn't communicating issues to the board, and there has been no formal evaluation including an alignment priorities and goals. I compare it to a marriage - if you allow communication, and thereby trust, to break down, then when the (inevitable) crisis/challenge occurs there is no firm foundation to work through it together. Katherine Morrison Morrison Nonprofit Transitions

    Dec 12, 2014
  • Anonymous

    It sounds like there was no strategic plan against which the ED could set targets against which the ED could be evaluated. That's not fair. To identify problems when issues, goals and targets were never agreed upon...well that sets up all kinds of legal issues. The ED could sue the pants off the Board

    Feb 18, 2015
  • Anonymous

    Hi Everyone, I provide support and training to over 70 board across my province. There are three main issues that keep coming up: fundraising and funding, recruitment of new board members and volunteers, and human resources. Now I am not a human resources expert but I do know a thing or two about not-for-profit organizations. People join a not for profit because they want to make a difference and you hope they have some skills in the three areas I mentioned above. In some cases, I see the ED's are bossing the boards (beyond the point of the ED providing insight - blantantly saying to board members you can't tell me what to do or how to spend the money) to ED's who are excellent in one area but perhaps struggle in others (i.e. inventory management). So, when I work with boards with regards to HR I usually follow this process: a) do you have a strategic plan? If yes, was the ED with the board when you developed it? Does the ED know about the strat plan? b) Do you have a job description for the ED? c) Do you have a policy or procedure in place for regular reporting and reporting structure? d) When was the last time the ED had a performance evaluation? If there are some serious concerns, I suggest the board hash out what their expectations of the ED are with the job description, employment standards codes etc at their finger tips. THEN compare it to the reports they receive from the ED - where is the ED spending most of their time? Then the board chair and I usually suggest another board member to be there to take notes ask for a candid discussion with the ED about the expectations, job description and how they can all work to get on the same page. I caution the board needs to go in with an idea (strategic plan) of where the program should be going and doing, BUT needs to be open to hear from the ED about things that may be taking up their time and preventing them from doing other things. I also suggest the board ask what the ED needs from them. This should not be a 100% one ways conversation and I suggest the board seriously consider the feedback they get back from the ED. Now this is all fine and dandy on paper, but in practice sometimes it goes south. Okay many times it goes south. I also put it in this perspective to the board - if your daughter, son, or partner was working for this board, how would you want them to be treated if there were questions or concerns about performance - probably just as anyone else - an opportunity to discuss the situation and a chance to address the concerns.

    May 01, 2015

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