Saturday, April 19, 2014

When the Board Wastes the CEO's Talent

A RECENT CONVERSATION ABOUT WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE for ongoing member communications at a nonprofit got me thinking about how boards can, often quite unintentionally, waste their CEO's talent and, in turn, the talent of bright, committed staff.  Boards can waste their own talent, too, but that's the subject for the next post. 

In this conversation, some board members argued that it was the role of the board to review and approve every word the organization relayed to its membership.  Others differentiated between "strategic" communications -- issue briefs, advocacy alerts, statements on future organizational directions, for example -- and "informational" communications, such as event promotion, volunteer or donor recognition, and activity recaps.  Clearly, the substance of the communication seemed to be one (if not the) determining factor in when the board would involve itself in message development and approval. 

However, we didn't get to that understanding until after I raised the issue that, at some level for many communications, we are talking about an operational activity, one carried out on a daily basis by staff who are hired in whole or in part because of their ability to communicate.  The board may approve an overall communications plan; it is the staff, with the leadership of the CEO, who will develop and implement it.  The CEO will determine what communications need committee or board input or final approval before release, not the other way around.

We left the conversation with the understanding that the organization's CEO would be responsible for "informational" communications.  Her judgement would determine if the board or the president would review a message before its distribution to the members, to stakeholders, or to the media.  "Strategic" communications would likely be developed collaboratively with a committee or task force and approved by the full board.  We did not delve into the issue about the CEO spanning the critical space between strategy and operations -- leading or shaping strategy at times, carrying it out at others.  That's a nuanced conversation for another day.

This is just one small example of how boards and their CEO's can get bound up in who-does-what-when-and-why.  Boards are charged with hiring the most capable staff leaders they can find.  Boards that then forget (or fear) their CEO's talent by doing the work of that talent may just as well take that CEO salary and throw it down a rat hole, because they've reduced their CEO to the level of a glorified administrative assistant.  (And even though great administrative assistants are worth their weight in gold, the CEO almost always earns more.  If the board fails to hire the best CEO talent it can find, it's a thousand times better off with a really great administrative assistant.  At least stuff will get done.)  

Talk about squandering human AND financial resources!  Are you listening, board members?

I'm reminded of John Carver's statement “Board members and the executive director are colleagues without hierarchy.”  It's a beautiful thing, but often unrealized, especially if a board is new to having a CEO relationship or it is stubbornly carrying some outdated notion that the CEO is nothing more than their 'hired help'.  

Boards hire CEOs to do mission-critical strategic AND operational work.  Let them do it and support them in their doing it.  Talk that through to clarity, establish policies or procedures, if necessary, but don't do it for them.