Each week, you and your staff interact with the board in dozens of ways. When is the board member representing the board? When are they volunteering as individuals? Whenever they are meeting in a quorum, they transform into your board. You follow their collective directions on policy and strategies. When they are not in a quorum, they act as individuals, i.e., volunteers. The staff’s role is to manage day-to-day operations.
Review your last dozen individual board member interactions. What role did each board member take?
The best way to avoid this overreach behavior is to prevent it. Pull open our last board agenda. What items did you bring to them? Where are the management decisions? Or policy and strategy questions? Label management decision “M” and the strategy or policy issues “SP.” How did you do? Many nonprofit leaders are embarrassed when they realize they’ve invited board micromanaging. It’s a standard error.
The good news is that you can quickly correct this dysfunctional behavior by planning what you will ask and working with committee members to frame their reports to the board. Hence, when the committee chair shares the report, the chair ends with a strategy question. Or, you follow up the report by outlining the board policies you need to make agenda items operational.
Let’s step into one of your board member’s heads for a minute.
You’ve been a board member for about a year. You’ve attended an orientation. Each month, you have an opportunity to learn more about the organization at the board meeting and committee meeting. During today’s board meeting, you realize that the organization needs to spend one-tenth of its annual budget on a client confidentially system to meet HIPPA requirements.
Everyone is upset, unhappy, and worried by this news. While everyone knows that the board’s role is to govern, your discussion veers from governance to micromanaging in about two minutes. You stop exploring ways to fund this unexpected expense and switch to how you will choose a vendor, who will have access to the data, and other staff issues.
The member you imagine has never had to make this big a financial decision, and economic choices freak them out, and they are worriers by nature. Controlling the details soothes the anxiety.
Fear can be collective or individual. Anxiety can be about current challenges, something that happened in the past, or something that happened to another organization making headlines.
Fear is almost always contagious, and the best way to tame it is to hear it and name it. Once named, the board can establish policies or limits that allow staff to mitigate the risks and the board to put their fears at bay.
The final way to stop your board from micromanaging involves asking and listening to the answers about the board’s trust in your leadership. When it comes to micromanaging, this is what most nonprofit CEOs fear the most.
Instead of wondering and worrying, ask for a performance appraisal. Are you delivering on the board’s expectations? If your board has lost faith in your leadership abilities, it’s best to know it. Suppose your fears are ungrounded and the board is pleased with your leadership. In that case, you’re in an ideal place to share with those who evaluate your goals to make your organization function better than ever, including moving from operations to a governance board.
Big picture, you’ll use every step of the board member lifecycle to educate them. Share the board’s role with prospects, recruits, and members for policy and strategy work. When a board member takes on the chair’s role, the education continues. If you fail to teach your board how to help, they’ll assume micromanaging is what you need. After all, setting policies and establishing strategies is hard work. Armchair managing is more straightforward than creating policies. Moreover, most people have more experience doing tasks than governing.
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