“And the beat goes on...............................”
Cross purpose conflict
One of the most frequent complaints of Executive Directors vis a vis their Boards is the issue of micromanagement - the tendency of Boards to want to constantly look over the shoulder of the chief executive and do his/her job (and often staff member’s jobs too) themselves.
Why does this happen?
There are any number of reasons a Board tilts towards micromanagement as a default way to run their organizations. Here are some of the factors at play:
- Board members often assume their job is to be hands on managers for the organization. Many board members are recruited because of specific skills and experience in a given area, and they conclude that active participation in that area is their contribution to the organization. They are often unclear from the very beginning of their tenures what their role is suppose to be. John Carver has preached for a long time, that the Board is responsible principally for the financial health of the organization, and to hire the CEO, and that Board members must then let that hire do his/her job. Alas, that sage advice is often ignored as the norm.
- Board members - like most of us - are experienced in doing things, not necessarily in leading. They have no concept or experience with being overseers and leaders charged with big picture “vision” items, and honestly believe that hands-on doing is the only real value they have to offer. While they may appreciate delegation of authority in their own workplaces, they are not encouraged to embrace that thinking as nonprofit board members.
- There is often no clear (written) policy about the role of Board members and which areas are their responsibility and which areas are not. Absent such a clearly defined policy, they fill the void with the desire to exercise what they think is their right of authority.
- Board members often assume they know best (or better) than those hired to do a specific management job. Often they assume that if they don’t get involved, the job either won’t get done or it won’t be done right. This is a basic mistrust issue.
- Board members are frequently unprepared and shy away from their principal role of fiduciary overseers. Many, if not most, are often uncomfortable in the fund raising role. It is simply more interesting and satisfying to pitch in on specific operational or programatic jobs.
- Whether in response to some recent or long ago crisis, or the remnant of a time when the organization was without staff or jobs were done primarily on a volunteer basis, there is a legacy within the organization of Board members filling in the gap.
- Board members see themselves as the final decision makers on virtually all aspects of the organization. They are often territorial in defense of their authority, and see any challenge to that absolute authority as threatening.
So what is to be done?
- The Board Chair is the critical point person in this issue. It is their responsibility to insure that Board members do not overly micromanage and that CEOs and staffs are allowed to do what they were hired to do. If the Board Chair does not fully understand or appreciate that role, or if s/he does not perform that function, it may be advisable to bring in some outside coach or other resource that will help the Board Chair (and the CEO) to clarify their roles and responsibilities. The goal is to get the Chair to see him/herself as a partner with the CEO and to help redirect Board tendencies to micromanage into more positive pursuits that benefit, not hinder, the governance of the organization.
- In that light, it is essential for the Board to have a clear, written policy as to who is responsible for what, and to periodically revisit that policy to clarify and remind the whole Board of what is expected of them and where the boundaries lie. It isn’t always easy to move a Board unfamiliar with its policy making role away from its tendency to micromanagement as a way to fill the vacuum the lack of policy making creates. Boards must ultimately understand that the decisions that impact the overarching goals of the organization and its values are their job - but that the specifics of how that is implemented is the line CEO / staff function. If the CEO fails to deliver, the Board option is to replace that individual. If they do not appreciate that role, or simply reject it, then micromanagement is very likely to be an ongoing issue. New hire CEOs should be extremely wary of taking any position in an organization that does not embrace this kind of policy. Thinking that a Board historically committed to micromanagement is not a big issue is a serious mistake. Qualified, talented leaders should reject offers from organizations that have proven themselves incapable of foregoing the urge to micromanage. That is one way to begin to change the phenomenon. Funders should insist that such a written policy exist.
- Boards need to be encouraged to lead as their principal function, not to manage. Again, outside input as to why and how that best works may be advantageous. Most Boards are unfamiliar with conceptual organizational dynamics from a Board perspective. Knowledge in that area is essential and needs to be an annual agenda item for all Boards. Funders ought to be involved by insisting that organizations demonstrate efforts to insure their boards act as leaders not usurpers of staff functions.
- Dialogue within the organization should always be about the impact that any given policy (or disregard thereof) has on the organization. Depersonalizing the issue is essential in getting all sides to see that impact. It is better to talk about the organization than about specific personalities.
- A periodic inventory of how the Board spends its time may be instructive. How much time does the Board spend second guessing or actually performing what are logically staff functions v. how much time is spent on financial oversight and big picture issues that affect success at achieving the organization’s mission.
- Planning - long term strategic planning and even short term specific programmatic or operational planning may afford the Board an ultimately more satisfying way to channel their involvement and offer clearly delineated lines of authority. In short, the more a Board can discuss its role and how to best discharge that role, the better it will likely be at addressing the challenge of micromanaging. Planning as a process may also more clearly define what the staff does and where it needs help.
- Board members should be encouraged to share with the Chair and the CEO their concerns and fears as a way of dealing with confusion over how they can best contribute to the organization.
- Staff / Board retreats may allow for the airing of grievances and concerns by both groups in a relatively non-threatening way. There should be some mechanism by which CEOs and staff can bring their issues to the table.
- Board term limits and rotating committee assignments, meaningful and comprehensive orientation protocols for new board members, and periodic review of Board member performance are all essential to stemming the tide of micromanagement.
Some Boards may simply refuse to cede authority to the CEO and staff and will not give up the temptation to micromanage. Those organizations are ultimately in trouble because in the future it will be axiomatically much more difficult for them to attract leadership talent. Some intervention mechanism is needed, but I am unsure how that would be created and employed, but for it coming as a mandate from major funders (and it is clearly in the interest of funders to shy away from funding organizations that cannot get a handle on micromanagement.) How does a candidate for a job with a new organization discover the existence of a micomanagement problem? Ask a lot of questions, including does the organization have a written policy on the issue of lines of authority and decision making. Absent that, I would hope more and more leadership talent will categorically reject solicitation offers from those organizations that do not have such a written policy (though I appreciate that in tough economic times there are many leaders who will make the mistake that they can somehow "deal" effectively with the micromanagement issue.)
This is an issue that is likely far more systemically embedded and much more of a problem than we have acknowledged, and it really needs to be addressed.
Have a good week.