Working for boards is tough stuff
We all have friends who work for bosses who are absolute nightmares. As a matter of fact, I was on a business trip a few months ago driving in my rental car listening to a call-in radio program all about horrible boss stories. While I sympathize with friends in those situations, I can honestly say they have no idea what real workplace pain is like until they’ve had to work for a cantankerous non-profit board of directors.
- If a board has 15 members, then the non-profit CEO is working for 15 different people.
- 15 different board volunteers have 15 different personalities.
- 15 different board volunteers can have 15 different ways of wanting to do something.
- Have you ever tried to appease 15 different egos? OMG
Don’t get me wrong . . . working directly for a board has also yielded some of the best experiences in my life. However, I’ve seen too many of my non-profit friends reduced to a puddle of tears recently as a result of “politics” in the board room and “personal agendas” run amok.
So what is the solution? Where is the silver bullet? What can a non-profit professional do to make working with a board of directors less difficult?
Let me start by saying: not everyone is cut out for this kind of work. So, get your feet wet early in your career possibly by helping your agency’s CEO with a board project. Take this time to assess whether or not you like it not. If it doesn’t feel right, then chalk it up to a learning experience and decline future opportunities to interview for non-profit executive leadership jobs.
- Get in front of your board volunteers regularly. If you are just seeing your board members at monthly board meetings, then you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice. Set a goal of being in front of every board member at least once in between board meetings (and I go back on forth on whether or not committee meetings count). During these meetings, do more listening than you do talking. Gandhi told us to be the change we want to see in the world. So, if you want the board to listen to you, then you better listen to them.
- Respect boundaries. Too many of us want to befriend our board members, and I think this blurs boundaries. These people are your boss. Being social is one thing, but partying all night with them might cross a line. Establishing boundaries is tough stuff, but they always need to see you as a classy professional. These people can become part of your “extended non-profit family,” but never forget how dysfunctional families can get. Are you sure you want to bring “dysfunction” into your employment situation? Carefully thinking through boundaries makes a lot of sense to me and it will probably look different for each of you.
- Use planning tools to build consensus. There is nothing more challenging than having to work with 15 people who have 15 different ideas about how to do something. So, a good non-profit leader needs to possess “consensus building” and “facilitating” skill sets. If these are things they are good at doing, then their leadership toolbox needs to include planning strategies and tactics. Guiding a divided board through a strategic planning, resource development planning or marketing plan process can produce consensus and direction. Ahhhhh . . . happy days!
- Get serious about every part of your board development process. Approach board building like you would a chemistry experiment.
What do you believe is the most difficult thing about working for a board of directors? What strategies do you use to help make this a little easier?
Please share your thoughts using the comment box below because we can all learn from each other.
Here is to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC