Each week, you and your staff interact with the board dozens of ways. When is the board member representing the board? When are they volunteering as individuals? Whenever they meet 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 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 information, the chair ends with a strategy question you developed together.
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. You learn more about the organization monthly at the board and committee meetings. During today’s board meeting, the chair announces 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. While everyone knows that the board’s role is to govern, your discussion veers from governance to micromanaging in two minutes. You stop exploring how to fund the system and switch to how you will choose a vendor who will have access to the data and other staff issues.
Unknown to you, this member has never made this big a financial decision. Economic choices freak them out, and they are worriers by nature. Controlling the details soothes their anxiety.
Fear can be collective or individual. Anxiety can be about current issues, the past, or something that happened to another group making headlines.
Fear is contagious. The best way to tame it is to name it. Once named, you can guide the board to establish policies that allow staff to reduce the risks and put the board’s fears at bay.
The final way to stop your board from micromanaging involves asking and listening to the answers about your leadership. When it comes to micromanaging, most nonprofit CEOs fear this the most.
Instead of worrying, ask. Request 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 your goals to improve your organization with your evaluators, 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. The education continues when a board member takes on the chair’s role.
If you fail to guide your board, 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.
Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.
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