Eight Things Executive Directors Need to Stop Doing in 2016
Dani A. Robbins, Strategist, Principal, Founder, Non Profit Evolution
The fascinating thing about being a consultant and people paying you to make recommendations is that they generally listen to your suggestions. They don’t always implement them but they at least consider them. Friends, on the other hand, call when they’re trying to figure things out, but do they listen? Not so much!
As such, for my many friends who serve in leadership roles in nonprofits, please consider stopping the following practices:
1. Not Building the Board
I know you like it when your board members do what you suggest. I always liked it too. I also liked it when they challenged me. It wasn’t always comfortable. It wasn’t always pleasant. It was always helpful.
You cannot do the work of the board. Actually, you can, but it’s not the most effective way to go. Boards need to be trained on their role and then allowed to fulfill that role. When they are not, their liability is greater and the potential the success of your organization is limited.
Building a yes board will get you to yes, but it won’t get you to great. You can do a lot by sheer willpower, and you have. Build your board, let them fulfill their roles, and your organization will flourish!
I encourage you to also consider adding strategic and generative conversations to board meetings. It will engage board members in a new way and remind everyone why we do this work.
2. Setting the Organizations’ Strategic Direction
What I really mean is: Stop writing that strategic plan. Yes, you. Right now. That is the board’s job. They are less likely to buy into a plan that you wrote anyway and you are more likely to be frustrated that they don’t want to participate in implementing a plan that they didn’t create.
Your job is to encourage the process, help to find a facilitator, be in the room, participate in (but don’t dominate) the discussion, and answer questions. Once the plan is approved, your job is to operationalize it.
Try to not be upset if the facilitator asks you to limit your participation in the process. When I was running the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Western Reserve, we brought in Ken Rubin, our Regional Service Director from BGCA, to facilitate. He (very nicely) told me to be quiet during the strategic planning session. I was incensed! I was also wrong. Setting the organizations’ strategic direction is a board role.
3. Telling your Team to “Just Do it!”
It takes a lot of time to make sure staff understand what you are trying to do and where you are trying to go. Sometimes, they will get it intuitively but more often they won’t and you’ll have to explain it. To develop them as future leaders, rather than tell them to “just do it” – especially if you’re going challenge what they did do once it’s done– take the time on the front end to help them think through the process, the goals and the outcome.
Many of us were trained under the baptism by fire model and we learned. We did, in fact, often figure it out and get the job done. Still, it could have been much less harrowing, safer and more effective to have been trained and developed appropriately.
One other point: “Think for yourself” and “do what I say” are mutually exclusive instructions. Decide which one your want and train you team accordingly. Fair warning: should you pick the latter, your team may not have much opportunity for growth and might not stick around very long.
4. Avoiding Fund Raising
Like it or not, you are the Chief Development Officer. Even when you have a development director or a team of development directors, the CEO is ALWAYS the chief development officer. You cannot abdicate that role. You can decide at what level you want to play and how much latitude you will give your team. Your largest donor will always expect you to know their names, be the one to sign their notes, update them on activities and be in the room when they are solicited.
Your board will look to you for leadership and for direction as to what role they should play. You cannot delegate that to your development director. That’s all you.
That said, you should take direction from your development director who should be regularly giving you a list of people to call and notes on what to say. He or his team should also be training your board (and you, if necessary) on how to solicit a gift, preparing the solicitor and the materials for that meetings and then documenting the results of the meeting. He should be working with the board committee (while keeping you updated) to create and implement a plan to raise a variety of contributed income. The Chair of that committee should be reporting on its work to the board, not staff.
5. Not Hearing New Ideas
I know people bring you ideas all the time and sometimes, especially when you’re distracted, the answer is often no. I’m confident that you think about the idea afterwards and sometimes go back and say yes. I know I did. I also know that people found it confusing.
Nonprofit execs are always thinking on a variety of levels and war gaming multiple things simultaneously. It is very hard to turn that off and switch to considering something new. Stopping that practice is hard, really hard.
I think most of us need an improvisation course to teach us to say “yes and” instead of no. Or at least a training to learn how to say: “Tell me more.” “How would that work?” “Can I have some time to consider it?” You may still say no, but at least you will demonstrate that you are considering the idea.
6. Postposing Your Own Paycheck
Just to be crystal clear, I’m not talking about unpaid executive directors. I’m talking about executive directors who usually get paid but are not paying themselves this week (or possibly this month or this quarter). I totally understand how it seems reasonable to you to pay your team but not pay yourself. I get that there isn’t enough money in the bank. I get that it’s a cash flow issue. I get that it feels like the right thing to do, but it’s not.
I have been in the room when Board members are told that their execs have made this choice and they are, for the most part, not generally amused. They do not feel it’s honorable. They do not feel it’s noble. They think it’s nuts, dangerous for the agency and a liability for them. And they’re right.
If you truly do not have the cash to pay yourself, work with your Board to come up with a plan. Do not make the decision on your own to forgo your own paycheck in the hopes of saving your agency. It’s not fair or reasonable for your family. It’s outside the bounds of the labor laws. It’s also not your decision to make.
This is an issue to take to your Board. Don’t spring it on them at the last minute. And do not feel like it’s all on you. Nonprofits are run on a shared leadership model. Share the information and work with your Board to come up with a solution.
7. Personally Guarantee Anything
You should not personally guarantee a loan for your agency. You should not personally secure an agency credit card, a line of credit or put anything you own up as collateral. You lead but do not own your agency.
This is not your company. Even if it was, companies put systems in place to protect their owners. This is your baby and it is your responsibility but not yours alone. You report to a Board and that Board can – and likely will -make a decision with which you don’t agree. You could quit or get fired tomorrow. If either of those eventualities occur, you will be still be liable for whatever you personally guaranteed.
Don’t do it. Work with your Board and your lending institution to find a solution to secure the resources you need.
8. Owning the Work of the Board
If you are frustrated with your board, the answer may be looking back at you in the mirror. If they aren’t doing what you want, it may be because you’re doing it. Stop.
The work of the board gets done by committees. If you do not have committees, I encourage you to work to introduce them. Please click over to read Board Work via Board Committees.
In the absence of committees or even in the presence of them, you may still be doing their job. The easiest way to tell if you are is to consider who speaks the most at Board meetings. If it’s you, there’s your answer. Yes, I can hear you yelling at me through your computer but it’s still true.
If they don’t do it and you do, you’ll keep doing it. You have to give it back.
How? By saying to each committee chair “I just learned that the Chairs of each committee should be leading the committee meetings and giving the committee reports at Board meetings. Would you be willing to do so? I’m happy to sit with you prior to the meeting and go over the report and help brainstorm the answers to expected questions.” “Oh, you don’t want to or won’t be there?”
Yes I know this is where you step into the breach. Resist.
“Ok, who should we ask to report instead?”
You can set committee chairs up to succeed. You can call and ask them to set a committee meeting. You can even suggest times, date and write the agenda. You can send out the invitations. You can prep them to chair the meeting. You can whisper in their ear during the meeting and even type up the minutes afterward. But you can’t lead the committee meeting or report out on it at the board meeting.
If you have tried and failed to give back the work of the committee to its chair, you then can go to the Board Chair and/or the other Officers and ask for advice. Like this “Committee X hasn’t been meeting and /or seems to be having a hard time achieving their goals. Would you mind checking in with them and nudging them along?” “Oh, you have and nothing has changed? How would you like to handle that?”
While it is your Board to help develop, it’s not your Board to run or to manage. It’s not your committee and it’s not your meeting. It’s a Board meeting. The Board members should be talking; you should be there to listen, answer questions, present your report, and offer support and guidance. You should not be the person in the room talking the most. If you are, they are not. We want them to lead. That may mean you have to let them.
Set your board members up to succeed and they will help you lead your agency to heights you can’t even imagine today. Your agency will be stronger for it. As an added bonus, you’ll be less frustrated.
Leadership is hard enough. Even when you’re trained and you know the rules, your agency’s policies and the law, it’s still hard to decide where the lines go and which rules apply to which situations. Still, sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be. Stopping the above practices can make your difficult job not only a little less difficult, but also a little more rewarding.
Dani Robbins is the Strategist, Principal, Founder of Non Profit Evolution. Dani works with a variety of nonprofit boards and executive leaders to implement stronger and better aligned organizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-467-9242.