Dear Nonprofiteer, In the words of the great Elvis Presley, “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds . . .”

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I have a question regarding the below. How does a board determine
if the Executive Director is a lousy personnel manager? I have suspicions that
ours is a very poor manager. Staff morale appears to be low. There is no longer
openness and good communication among all staff and board. I used to feel
connected to the organization because of staff presentations once a year at a board
retreat but that no longer happens.  The current Executive Director is very
controlling and does not want board and staff to interact with each other. How
can the board go about determining what kind of manager, in terms of personnel
management, that we have hired without crossing improper boundaries?

Dear Nonprofiteer, Does the Board’s Personnel
Committee control personnel?
  What if the Executive Director is a lousy personnel manager?  The
Committee certainly has the right–indeed, the duty–to counsel the ED on ways
he could better lead his staff; and, if he’s unresponsive or incurably inept,
you have the right to recommend to the full Board that he be relieved of his

Signed, Alienated and Concerned

Dear Alienated,

What you’ve described sounds like a vicious circle–staff members go to Board members to complain, whereupon Board members go to the Executive Director to complain, whereupon the Executive Director tries to reduce complaints about him/herself by clamping down on staff interaction with Board, whereupon staff members go to Board members to complain, ad nauseum.  But to determine the best point at which to interrupt this tail-chasing, let’s review the ground rules: there shouldn’t be "good communication among all staff and Board;" there should be good communication between the Executive Director and the Board.  Board members must discipline themselves to say to staff members who approach them with complaints, "I’m sorry, but you have to take that up with the Executive Director."

That’s not to say it’s a good idea to eliminate staff reports from the agenda of Board retreats, or even of regular Board meetings.  The key is to avoid what we in the law biz call ex parte communication–discussions outside of meetings between individual staff and individual Board members.  So if you miss the reports and feel less connected to the agency because they’re lacking, say that directly to the Executive Director.  See what the rationale is: it may be that she didn’t understand how much hearing directly from front-line staff contributed to your investment in the agency, and simply thought it would be more efficient to deliver the reports herself.  It may even be that she intended to be advocating for an overworked staff by relieving them of the obligation to attend after-hours meetings of the Board.  And it may be that a simple request on your part will be sufficient to restore the staff to its previous reporting role.   

But if the E.D. says, "I wouldn’t trust those numbskulls to speak to a roomful of kindergarteners," then you’ve got a situation for the Personnel Committee.  The Committee needs to sit down with her and learn what underlay that comment–that is, hear all her complaints about the staff.  Though this sounds upside-down, be assured that these conversations will reveal everything you need to know about the E.D.’s management skills.  If she says, "I can’t get these people to do anything without screaming at them," then you know she’s spending a lot of time screaming.  Moreover, that gives you the necessary basis for the next question: "What exactly won’t they do, and what have they said about why they won’t do it?"  Again, if she says, "They won’t meet with me daily to give updates on their projects because they say they’re too busy," then you’re in a position to suggest a compromise: could she live with weekly updates, or reports in writing?  In other words, have the Personnel Committee serve as the E.D.’s executive coach. 

In this meeting (and all the rest of the time, for that matter) avoid saying, "Staff morale is poor" because it’s accusatory without being curative.  The Nonprofiteer recalls hearing similar statements during her days as an E.D., and recalls equally vividly how they prompted her to reply, "Well, I’m not going to have a personality transplant."

The other thing to avoid (if the conversation goes beyond "I miss those reports"–"Oh, sorry, I’ll restore them") is meeting with the E.D. individually and permitting/encouraging every other member of the Board to do likewise.  It’s hard enough being managed by a group; no one can survive management by a dozen individuals.  Remember: no ex parte contacts (even the initial, neutral "Can’t we have those reports again?" is best said at a Board meeting); discussions like these are what you have a Personnel Committee for.  (And by the way, if you don’t have one, don’t exacerbate matters by setting up one now: just have the Board meet as a Personnel Committee of the whole and get this particular mess hashed out.  Then create a Personnel Committee so you’re ready for next time.)

If you’re personally attached to staff members whose tenure predates that of the Executive Director, it’s hard not to resent on their behalf any changes the E.D. implements.  But changes–or at least implementation of some kind–are what you hired the E.D. for; you have to let her do her job. 

And you may want to reconsider describing any E.D. as "controlling;" that’s language more appropriate for families than for business settings.  And while nonprofit personnel, staff and Board alike, are fond of saying, "We’re like a family here–we’re like a family," it often turns out to be the family in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  Of course the E.D. is controlling: her job is to control the institution and everyone who works on its behalf.  It’s her head on the chopping block, after all–she’s the one who’s going to be held accountable for results.

There are E.D.s who are martinets–but again, you can find out their problem by asking them.  Even if staff members could describe the problem more directly, it’s simply not worth the disruption it would occasion.

If you think the E.D. is aces in terms of program, fundraising, promotion of the agency and strategic planning, and her answers to your concerns about subordinate personnel are at least plausible, then let her lead in her own way, even if her techniques aren’t the ones you’d adopt.  Especially if she says, "The staff is more worried about its next day off than about executing the mission of this agency"–though you can suggest ways she can better communicate mission to the people she works with–you’re best off letting the person who lives and dies for the mission decide who isn’t up to the task of doing the same.


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