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.
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.