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Relationship as an Early Predictor of Board - Executive Director Success

Posted by Stephen Lemire on July 17, 2012 at 1:05 PM

The most important relationship in a small staff nonprofit is the one between the board of directors and the executive director. It is a dynamic partnership which changes as the organization matures and as board members rotate on an annual basis.
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During the hiring process for a new (or start up) executive director, the board of directors will first evaluate applicants based on a pre-determined set of criteria. Once the leading candidate has been vetted and the board is satisfied that this person possesses the qualifications, experiences, and skill set that they seek for the position, they have just reached “Heartbreak Hill” in the marathon to determine if this is the most appropriate executive director they seek.
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To adequately complete the hiring process the board and the candidate must separately assess their potential working relationship. The only gauge to evaluate how well they think that they will be able to work together before the board offers the job, and the candidate accepts the position, is a limited number of interactions that they’ve had to this point (a phone interview and two face-to-face interviews, typically).
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Many times, the telephone screening and first interview may even be carried out by a search firm representative or human resources consultant that, in turn, could potentially reduce the number of board-to-prospective executive director interactions to two, or even one. In a small staff or start-up nonprofit which will require a significant amount of regular contact, bordering on a professional-personal relationship, this is inadequate.
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Likewise, the executive director candidate has very little information to formulate a strong opinion of the board of directors for whom they may soon be working. Initial judgments can be based on the professional credentials of individual board members as provided by the nonprofit’s website or by researching their LinkedIn profiles. Further, an assessment of their collective success can be drawn by evaluating their board level accomplishments, to-date. Yet, the all-important face-to-face interactions may be limited to a conference call and one formal interview. This is not enough visceral information to anticipate the dynamics with which the executive director will collaborate with the board collectively, in subsets, or its individual members.
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There are a number of ways to provide an opportunity for the board and the candidate to have a less formal way to connect during the hiring process which can go a long way to giving each party additional insight. For example, meeting for coffee or going to dinner the day before the interview is a great ice-breaker prior to the final nerve-wracking session. Building in a brief meet-&-greet session before the interview can also help to put everyone at ease. Another method, which I have found useful, is an informal get-together between the candidate and the board president at the president’s place of employment.
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Failure for both parties to enter into their new working relationship with a relatively strong degree of comfort can be wrought with potential pitfalls. For example, perceptions about mutual expectations may exist and gaps in communication may lead to organizational breakdowns. Common problems occur when the board is not totally clear on the executive director’s management style or the ED is unsure of the regular detailed reporting required by the board. The ultimate result can be a level of micromanagement with which the executive director is uncomfortable, leading to feelings of being stifled. Eventually, the ED will pull away from the board.
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The board needs to be sure that the executive director has a clear understanding of the mission, the collective vision which the board shares to meet its mission, and that the board’s goal is to evolve from oversight to strategy to governance. On the other hand, the candidate has to be comfortable that the board will allow them, as the new executive director, the autonomy to grow in the position and to develop the organization through adequate levels of responsibility, voice, and creativity.
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Before finalizing a working agreement, key board members and the executive director must be comfortable that their personalities will complement and not clash; their management styles will be supportive and flexible; their organizational, professional, and personal goals (as they relate to the association) will be in synch; and that there will be a desire to challenge each other in a productive way.
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Once both parties feel reasonably comfortable with the fit (the perceived dynamic and synergy of how the potential working relationship will be and how it will evolve over time) that they should complete the hiring process. In doing so they will have recognized that this mutually achieved level of comfort (the set of circumstances in which they are at ease and have minimal stress) is an important asset on par with communications, teamwork, and attitude. It is at this point that their partnership is truly forged and they can begin to work cooperatively to meet the organization’s mission.
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Categories: Nonprofits, Board of Directors, Executive Directors

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