Blind Spots

When board, staff and CEO mingle and collide

[This post has no business residing on this blog. But I don’t have a blog devoted to management and even if I did, I wouldn’t have enough material to keep it afloat, much less interesting. So, I am parking it here, if for no other reason than it will make it easier to share with colleagues. But, if by some great chance you are reading this and you manage a non-profit or you serve as a board member for some organization, you might find the following of interest. Otherwise, feel free to ignore! MH]

For much of the 1990s, I worked in Washington, D.C., just around the corner from the White House. At our offices at 15th Street and New York Avenue, the comings and goings of staff seemed an almost daily occurrence. Some of this was owed to the transitory nature of the town itself. Washington is the only place [to my knowledge] where job hopping is viewed less as a professional liability then it is some kind of badge of honor, a testimony to one’s resilience and broad experience.

There were certainly no shortage of staff departing for what they saw as greener pastures, but more often then not, it was the result of management deciding someone was no longer a “good fit.” And every once in a while, the displaced person happened to be someone I liked. After I discovered they were let go, I almost always felt they were victims of a callow, unthinking management.

I worked at this organization for a full eight years and in the beginning, when someone was dismissed, I was careful to appear removed from the situation. I didn’t want to give the appearance I was sympathetic to the unfortunate person, and thus some how convey the impression I was at odds with management and therefore a malcontent, and therefore a leading candidate to be the next staffer no longer considered a “good fit.”

As time wore on, however, and my seniority and credibility grew, I became increasingly vocal when someone I deemed valuable was let go. The CEO graciously tolerated my meek protestations until such a time they became increasingly less meek and took on more indignant overtones. The tipping point came after I discovered they dismissed a policy analyst with whom I had become friends. Unlike most of the other analysts and lobbyists in the office, this guy was open in his dealings with others, funny, and for the most part not overly impressed with himself. In other words, he was the sort of person I tended to gravitate toward in an office filled with suffocating egos.

He and I quickly became good work friends and somewhere along the way I discovered he was an alcoholic. But by all appearances, he was a recovering one, and as the father of a young family, didn’t we have an obligation to first try to help him instead of defaulting to our same-old, same old, which was to show him the door? I said as much to the CEO. To his credit he didn’t rebuff me and instead chose to reveal he really struggled with trying to figure out the best course of action to take on this employee’s behalf. He also disclosed the problem with my friend went much deeper than I had imagined. On top of his regularly coming in an hour or two late just about every other day (a fact of which I had no knowledge since he worked on the other side of the building), he was also missing entire days; apparently too hungover to even make it into work. I also discovered they had more than one conversation about trying to get him into some kind of recovery program but my friend had failed to take even the most elementary of steps by acknowledging he had a problem.

It quickly became obvious to me I had a very narrow view of what happened and that I had done the CEO a gross disservice. He apparently shared my view. A few months later, when it was time for my annual review, I was dinged for my presumptuousness and sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong. Surprisingly, I still got my bonus and it didn’t cause any set back to my standing in the organization, but it was made clear that my self-appointed role as “the conscience of management” was no longered welcomed.

Properly chastened, I walked away sobered by the whole experience. But it wasn’t until I took the position I now hold that I truly started to appreciate just how unfair I had been to the CEO.

Now, safely tucked away in the suburbs of Baltimore, I had my own staff of a dozen or so to manage. I also had a board of directors to contend with, but I was careful before I accepted the job to make sure I would have sole discretion to hire and fire. I would be held accountable for the overall performance of the organization, but they would not interfere with any of my personnel decisions. Those assurances, however, were put to the test the moment I began to shake up the staff, or to a lesser extent, those times an unhappy staffer would confide in a board member.

I quickly discovered there is an inherent danger to the CEO of an organization such as ours where the staff routinely interacts with the board members. In the eyes of the board, the staff is always responsive, always hard-working, always cheerful and always has the best interests of the organization in mind.

And just as I was not privy to all that top management saw in my last place of employment, board members are often unaware of the less than stellar behavior that sometimes can occur behind closed doors.

It took a while but I eventually ended up replacing all but one of the original staff. And even though the board did not overrule any of my decisions, they were unable to keep their promise of not interfering. They openly (and as I was to later discover, secretly) expressed their concern and dismay over losing such “valuable” members of the team.

As the result of their concerns, meetings were held without me behind closed doors, sometimes with members of my staff. Did I need management training, they wanted to know. And because many of those dismissed happened to be women, some of the female members of the board wondered out loud whether my problem with the dismissed staff didn’t have more to do with their sex then it did with their performance (this, despite the fact that all but one of our staff were female and the women I let go were replaced with other women).

The board’s meddling created an anxiety-inducing 18 months or so. I finally got to the point where I decided no job was worth the baby ulcer I imagined was growing inside me and started circulating my resume. I was even willing to give up my ten-minute commute and return to the grind of commuting from Baltimore to D.C., everyday.

Eventually new board members, those without ties to the displaced staff, replaced the old ones. And my role as the head of staff was once again on solid ground. But despite that clarity, it does not always eliminate the drama. Whenever a popular employee is dismissed, it almost always causes a certain amount of rumbling among some of the board. I have come to accept these uncomfortable moments as one of the few downsides to working with a group of dedicated volunteers. The reality is that board members are largely removed from the day-to-day operations of our organization with the exception of two to three hours each month they spend at meetings. During those times, staff members reveal only that what they want to reveal and volunteers, understandably, can have a myopic appreciation of their true value to the organization and just how easy they are, or are not, to manage.

I’ve learned over the years that whenever I begin to arrive at the conclusion I may need to make a personnel move that I first need to selectively confide my concerns with some of the board’s leadership. That circle certainly includes the board chair, but it can be wise to take one or two others into your confidence, particularly if those members have the confidence and respect of the other board members.

Foreshadowing the dismissal of a prominent staff member to the board and inviting a chosen few into some of your thinking — as well as letting them know about some of the corrective measures you’ve tried to take — while not required, can help build trust between the exec and the board. There are colleagues I have spoken to over the years who sharply disagree. “Once you cede your role as the head of staff,” they tell me, “there’s no turning back.” Maybe, but there is a considerable difference between “asking permission” and keeping your leaders “in the loop.”

I didn’t fully appreciate this nuance until I had the opportunity to serve as board president for a non-profit that mentors at-risk-kids in Baltimore City. The executive was forever making dramatic decisions without first informing the board. Meeting after meeting, we would hear about major policy or staff changes and leave the room kind of shaking our heads. When I tried to help him appreciate the wisdom of taking at least some of the board members into his confidence before he pulled the trigger, he bristled. “What?! Am I supposed to go to the board now and ask permission to have a staff meeting?” Eventually, he began to understand that taking others into his confidence and getting their input on major decisions wasn’t ceding authority; it was just plain smart, but not just in terms of job security.

I’ve come to appreciate that a good board isn’t there to frustrate you, but to provide that broader perspective to which the association exec might not be privy. Instead of bristling, I’ve come to value having a group of advisors in which to bounce off major decisions. No matter how effective I might imagine myself to be in my job, I’ve got blind spots. And to stubbornly go forth and be rigid on these issues is not only reckless from a career perspective, but from a strategic one as well.


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