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Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Ask an Expert: Shared Leadership - Board & Executive Director Roles


Dear SVP,
I serve on a board and we’re having a hard time figuring out how the board makes sure we have good governance and oversight but don’t micromanage.  What’s the difference?  Can you give us some examples?
Board Member, Boulder County Nonprofit


The following answer is based on our Experts’ experience and represent the opinion of SVP Boulder County. This information should not take the place of advice from professionals acting on your organization’s behalf.

Dear Board Member,

As a governance trainer with BoardSource, I get this question almost every time we talk about staff and board leadership roles. The truth is that there is inherent tension between the board and the executive director because both govern and have to share leadership for the organization. It can be challenging to know when to step up and when to step back.

While dynamics are always changing within an organization, there are some ideal goals that your board can work towards for a healthy working relationship:

  • Respect that there are different priorities within board and staff roles;
  • Understand how responsibilities differ;
  • And, make room for a variety of personal management styles.

First and foremost, clarify expectations for everyone involved; ensure participation in regular in-person and electronic communications; and conduct consistent annual assessment of the board and executive director.

The “Problem”
Many organizations find themselves in a situation where board members are practicing governance by simply attending board meetings (and doing little else) and the executive director is simultaneously “going through the motions” of managing the organization. This scenario is commonly thought of as rubber-stamping.

Another construct is when the executive director is managing the board, displacing them in their governance roles. This is one of the most common situations I see. After all, very few board members join a board as experts on governance. Rather, board members join boards because they are passionate about the mission and have some personal connection to the work.

The other most common type of unbalanced leadership is when the board has displaced the executive director and is micromanaging day-to-day activities within the organization. It sounds like this may be the primary challenge in your nonprofit.  It is important to remember that the board’s primary roles are to: 1) set the organizational direction; 2) ensure necessary resources; and 3) provide oversight. Examples of the Board’s purview include:

  • Long term planning (i.e. strategic planning);
  • Setting philosophical direction, which does not include the tactics of how the direction will be achieved;
  • Identifying resources needed and how they will be acquired;
  • Recruiting, supporting and evaluating the executive director whom serves as the conduit between staff and board;
  • And, asking questions and providing support regarding oversight of the organization’s activities.

Please Note: This list does not include ways that the board manages staff directly, other than the  executive director. The approach, rather, focuses on more of a tactical and strategic approach to overseeing the organization and its leadership. Creating policies that help to ensure this direction and fundraising to implement the best practices is where board members can excel!

The Solution
More often than not, boards benefit from training or coaching from an external expert in governance who shares best practices and resources for board excellence. I highly recommend attending webinars, trainings, or conferences to learn about the best governance practices.

The ideal board and staff relationship is one where there is a constructive partnership that we refer to as ‘governance as leadership’. That is, the board as a whole understands its roles and responsibilities as does the executive director. A consistent review and evaluation of systems and practices should be in place to help direct maintenance and make adjustments where necessary.

A great tool I use to communicate shared leadership is the following image that breaks down when the board leads, when the executive director leads, and when leadership is shared:

There is so much to learn and talk about when it comes to board governance best practices and it is no easy task to lead an organization in any capacity. Keep the conversation going by researching great resources available both locally and nationally. Here are a few I always recommend:

Keep up the great work in the community!

Emily Davis, MNM

About Emily

Emily Davis, MNM, is the President of Emily Davis and Associates Consulting, author Fundraising and the Next Generation; 21/64 family philanthropy consultant; & BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer. She provides consulting, speaking, and training to and for nonprofit and philanthropist leaders on governance, philanthropy, and social media. Emily serves in advisory roles for Nonprofit World Magazine, Nonprofit Cultivation Center, and Social Venture Partners of Boulder County. She has received & been nominated for a number of awards throughout the country. Emily has served as a staff member, executive director, and founder for a number of organizations. She has her Masters in Nonprofit Management from Regis University.

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