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How Inexperienced EDs can avoid this Important Mistake

Posted by Stephen Lemire on July 2, 2012 at 2:05 PM


[I had the pleasure of recently being interviewed by Natasha Golinsky of Next Level Nonprofits http://www.nextlevelnonprofits.com/. Available through her website on July 5 will be a 10-part audio download, “10 Critical Mistakes First-Time Executive Directors Make when Working with their Boards (and How to Avoid Them). Below are a few of my thoughts on the subject. Be sure to download the full series to hear my 30-minute discussion on the subject.]

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The most important mistake that many new executive directors make is that they fail to clarify, and ensure that, the expectations and boundaries are clear among the roles of the executive director, the board of directors, and individual board members.
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A prospective executive director begins the process to establish clear expectations and boundaries regarding their role and that of the board and its members during the interview process - before they are even hired. When the candidate ED is meeting with the search committee and board, among the many questions they need to ask are: Why did the last ED leave? What does the board need to do more of/less of? Who’s missing from the board? What skill sets are needed on the board? This will help: 1) identify if there is a good potential two-way fit between the board and candidate (see: http://www.4site4nonprofits.com/apps/blog/show/10182515-the-fit-need-go-both-ways); 2) point out if there are control issues with the board; and 3) help the board understand that the prospective ED considers their relationship with the board to be paramount.
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Once hired, the ED needs to immediately review any past meeting minutes to note key players and important issues. Also, the ED must begin to meet with individual directors (in-person or on the phone) to establish repo ire and to get their individual perspectives of what the organization does well, needs to improve, etc. It is helpful to conduct the interviews with standardized questions to gauge board members’ responses against each other. Finally, within the first few months, the ED should ensure that job descriptions and responsibilities for the ED, officers, and all board members are current, clearly documented, and will be reviewed and enforced, as needed.
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If there develops an ED-board member rift, the only director the ED should deal with directly is the President. The ED works for the board; the President is the liaison. The President should first troubleshoot and if that does not succeed, then the President should mediate.
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If there are relational problems between the new ED and the board of directors, the ED may notice some of the following: micromanagement (http://www.4site4nonprofits.com/apps/blog/show/9243752-micromanagement-is-a-4-letter-word), attempts to bypass their authority, board members interacting directly with staff, divisiveness on the board (particularly around ED performance, role, and priorities), and directors grasping for the status quo (“this is how we’ve always done it”;).
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The executive director can be sure that any “growing pains” are behind them and that their relationship with the board is evolving, first, over time. Like any relationship (and an ED-board relationship can be quite intimate), it requires time to mature and a comfort level to develop. More importantly, the ED will notice increased levels of autonomy, responsibility, and creativity as the board defers on more decisions and seeks greater input and leadership.
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Categories: Executive Directors, Nonprofits, Management

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