Sunday, April 3, 2011

Exodus of longtime leaders. What is the real cause?

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on………………………”

Burned Out or Pushed Out?

In the last eighteen months a number of personal friends have left leadership posts in our field that they have held for a long time. There is nothing necessarily unusual about this kind of attrition in leadership succession – it is a natural part of the rhythms of change.

Isn’t it?

It is, I think, provided that the underlying reason these people are leaving is retirement or moving on to other ventures long postponed but never completely forgotten. But a surprising portion of those friends who have left longtime positions lately, after exploring with them the “why” of the change and the timing, turn out to be leaving for negative reasons, contentious reasons – specifically having reached an untenable and negative relationship with their board. Most of the examples I have seen (and I wish there were some research on this specific issue, but there appears to be none) share a common thread in that the bad relationship between the hired Executive Director and the Board is not a long standing problem but a more recent development with a newer Board.

The problems from the Executive Director’s perspective seem to fall into three broad categories: 1) The current board is uninformed and unrealistic and seems not bothered by that fact. This leads to arguments and confrontations on everything from basic mission and organizational policy formulation to minute aspects of governance, fundraising, program development and implementation and more; 2) The current board has no sense of the history of the organization, no appreciation of the nuances of the growth or the cycle of growth and decline of the organization, resulting again in a failure to be supportive of the ED’s experiential based strategies; and 3) The current board has the mindset that it’s job goes beyond monitoring and protecting the fiduciary integrity of the organization, and that many of the day to day decisions are part of its prerogative resulting in varying degrees of micro-management.

From the Board’s point of view: 1) The ED increasingly thinks of the organization as his / her fiefdom and is increasingly disinclined to want to share any decision making authority; and 2) The ED makes little attempt to even mask his/her contempt for the Board and the well intended and conscientious work it is trying to do on behalf of the organization.  Both feel unappreciated, misunderstood and the need to assert their authority.

The ED is impatient with what s/he considers a clueless, meddling and not very helpful Board, and the Board is impatient with the ED as arrogant and uncooperative. The relationship is increasingly dysfunctional. The increased pressures of financial problems and everything now being so much of a challenge for both ED and Board increases the tension, often to the breaking point. I have come to believe this is one of the unspoken secrets in our sector at the moment, and the breakdown in many of these relationships is good for neither side, and simply devastating to the organization itself – whether the dysfunctional relationship comes to a head or bubbles under the surface.

There are certainly many organizations where the relationship between the Executive Director and the staff and the Board is excellent. Many boards follow the Carver model of essentially leaving the Executive Director to make his or her decisions and regard their role to intervene only if the Executive Director needs to be replaced. Alas, from the past 15 years talking and listening to Executive Directors / Presidents of all kinds and sizes of arts organizations, I believe the underlying contentiousness between boards and senior leadership is much more the norm than the exception. This is nothing really new. I have heard these stories of frustration for some time. For the most part I think the conflict is minor and not much of a real problem - though wherever it exists there is the potential for it to grow and fester.  The problem at hand is there seems to be a lowering of the threshold of the breaking point, and that development may indeed be something new for us.

From what I have observed and been told by a number of those Executive Directors who have recently left long term leadership positions (and who were not doing so to retire), the reason they moved on was that the relationship with their Board was no longer, in their minds, tenable; no longer workable; no longer salvageable. They just didn’t want to make the effort anymore. Part burnout, yes. But something more too I think.

There are, of course, two sides to these stories. I don’t know if the reason Executive Directors and Boards come to such an impasse is because the Board is unreasonable, untutored, and simply clueless as to their function and role, or because the Executive Director has grown into an unyielding and uncompromising kind of tyrant. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.  Clearly though, there is a disconnect – most obvious when it reaches the point of confrontation, but also undeniably present beneath the surface in a lot of organizations where the “tipping point” has not yet been reached.

Not surprisingly, most organizations that recognize an impasse try diligently to either pretend it isn’t as big a problem as it portends to be, or cover it up in the mistaken belief that nothing is to be gained by airing “dirty laundry”. That latter course perpetrates somewhat of a fraud on candidates to replace the outgoing Executive Director, if the impasse results in such a change -- as little to no mention of the real reason for the outgoing ED is ever provided to the new candidates (or likely any of the search firms that may be engaged to find a new leader). Often times the staff is unaware of the degree of friction and not every Board member is always aware of the conflict either (and cliques among a Board is a whole other topic).

The degree to which this unspoken reality of tension between boards and leaders is widespread and prevalent, I do not know. As I said, I wish we had a better sense of the extent that this is a problem (if it is). I think we need to do a systemic assessment to try to ascertain both the nature, and the scope and depth of this as a problem and try to get a handle on its practical ramifications.  There is certainly ample anecdotal evidence that something is amiss here, and I have certainly personally detected varying degrees of Board / ED tension during a score or more Board Retreats over the past three years. 

As to what can be done about addressing it as an issue – the obvious response is to provide: 1) more training to boards and prospective board members about their role, duties, obligations etc, and 2) more support to Executive Directors who feel (rightly or wrongly) to be beleaguered and perceive themselves victims – including making interventions and brokered negotiations and arbitration options more available and seen as more acceptable and smart alternatives. First we have to identify the problem, then get people to acknowledge and accept the reality as it actually exists; second, we have to develop ways that address the issues of each of the factions to their mutual satisfaction.

It seems to me that this is a much bigger problem than anyone is acknowledging, and that we have ignored it for some time, preferring to believe everything was all working just fine; that it has enormous consequences for both the individuals involved (Executive Director and Board members alike), to the organizations impacted by it being real for them, and to the sector as a whole; and finally that while there may be any number of ways we can address the issue, there will likely be no easy or quick fix – but talking about it will be a start.  We can pretend it isn't real, but I suspect it is.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit


  1. Barry: I have seen this a lot - too often - in my work with nonprofits over the last 30 years. If we get at the heart of the issue then we have to admit that it's the system itself that is to blame and that no amount of training will solve the "problem." We've been trying to train Boards for ages! We need to completely rethink the entire nonprofit structure that requires Boards in the first place.
    Morrie Warshawski

  2. Note: I am posting this comment on behalf of C. Reed who had trouble entering it via Safari on the Apple format. If anyone else has experienced similar problems, please let me know. thanks. Barry

    Comment: in my nearly four decades working in nonprofits I have seen a change in the character and intention of board members. Folks used to participate on boards understanding that they were not going to get involved in the daily minutiae and accepting that they were expected primarily to raise and contribute funds. Sometime in the 90’s the level of altruism started to dissolve and we now have socialites and major egos to contend with. I completely agree with Morrie Warshawski’s comment. In my experience board members now see their participation in nonprofits as a boon to their own cachet and generally have little regard for the true well being of the organization.

    C Reed

  3. Barry, you've hit on a big on. I think it is a problem and a growing one since the economy fell apart in 2008. The resulting financial problems caused a radical increase of ED-identified Board problems, as Boards see micro-management as the only appropriate response to buckets of red ink. In my mind, it’s one thing to set up a task force to revise budgets, get an Executive Committee involved in programming decisions, or even reconsider the mission, but entirely another for the board to make decisions about every program and line item in the budget.

    One of the root causes is the challenge of board recruitment for arts organizations in many communities. Finding experienced board members, or folks at least willing to take on a decent amount of training is tough, depending on the relative stature of the arts among other non-profits in any given locale. Drawing from audience members, as many arts groups do, another challenge is to find trustees willing to buy into a shared vision and not just their own conception of the possibilities of the art form as they see it.

    However, on the other side, the issue with ED’s isn’t limited issues of authority or contempt. A third problem extends beyond the relational, and it has everything to do with an unwillingness to adapt. Fantastic ED’s have learned from their own successes a template for success that may not be so effective in the new reality that is the 21st century. I could write at length, but this has to do with shifts in every facet of nonprofit arts leadership: primarily shifting business models, audience expectations & management styles. Combined with changing expectations in all of the relational dimensions: flatter staffing hierarchies, increase information sharing, omnidirectional communications, etc. Leaders who’ve adapted well for decades are occasionally ill-equipped for what you might describe as the arts nonprofit 2.0 era. Or perhaps having adapted so many times before, some feel attacked from all sides and would rather quit than fight what can feel like an unwinnable multi-front war - when you’re challenged by Board, audience AND staff. 2 cents worth of my reaction to your very provocative post. Sometimes it’s burnout, sometimes it’s rust.

    Ted Russell