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Dealing with difficult executive directors: Tips for nonprofit boards

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Are you an executive director dealing with a difficult board? Read the first article in our two-part series for tips on how to improve the situation!

It’s not easy being an executive director of a nonprofit organization. In addition to the myriad challenges of wearing many, many hats, and spinning straw into gold — often with very little straw — executive directors have the unique experience of reporting to multiple bosses in the form of a board of directors. As one ED put it, “Not many people understand what it’s like having nine, ten or even fifteen people looking down the table at you.”

While everyone wants to put their best foot forward and to do the best job they can, the reality is that cracks are showing. The HR Council’s Driving Change study showed that more than half of Canadian nonprofit executive directors say they will leave their position within four years. Ninety percent of EDs in Peel Region, in a recent survey by the Peel Leadership Centre, describe themselves as being isolated or very isolated, with 91% identifying as feeling burned out. There is significant and arguably preventable turnover happening within the top jobs at nonprofits. As governance consultant and author of The Guide to Positive Staff-Board relations for Directors of Nonprofit Organizations, Sandi Humphrey, governance consultant, says, “In many cases, lots of gifted, talented people are wasting their time.”

One key place where things go south is in the relationship between an executive director and the board (and even more often, the board chair). We're tackling this relationship head on in a two-part series of articles, looking at how boards deal with challenging EDs and how EDs deal with challenging boards.

This isn’t something that is often addressed because, as Lianne Picot, executive director of the Peel Leadership Centre, says, “People feel vulnerable in talking about this. It speaks to the insecurity and vulnerability of our sector.” Humphrey agrees: “Everyone wants everyone else to think things within their organization are ducky. From my work, I’ve come to the conclusion that things are rarely ducky.” Jane Garthson, president of the Garthson Leadership Centre, adds, “People think their situation is unique. It usually isn’t, but they don’t know that.”

Uncovering common pitfalls and examining how to address them in a more healthy and effective manner can only benefit organizations and the sector as a whole.

Things can go wrong in many ways

Do any of these stories sound familiar?

  • Our executive director gets so defensive when I ask her for something.
  • Our executive director won’t let us exercise proper fiscal oversight.
  • The first I heard about our funding cuts was in the newspaper.
  • Our executive director doesn’t recognize my authority.
  • I’m not sure the executive director is right for the job, but I don’t want to say anything that would offend him.
  • If our executive director doesn’t stop sending me those nasty emails I swear I’m going to quit!

There are many of the ways a board can find an executive director to be challenging. One person who has sat on a variety of boards says, “There are lots of reasons why working with an executive director can be a challenge. It’s not always a power struggle. Sometimes the governance model itself is problematic when it relies heavily on the ED as a single conduit of information between board and staff. If an ED chooses not to share information a board needs to make decisions, this can leave board members vulnerable.” The same person listed other challenges: “Beyond EDs who have something to hide or who think they know better than the board or who are prone to controlling tendencies, there could also be skills or knowledge gaps, lack of experience, or struggles between the ED and staff.”

But this is a relationship worth working on. A key finding of the Driving Change study was that regardless of organization type or size, “The support provided by the board is an important driver of executive director satisfaction and retention.” Further, the study concluded, “while a causal relationship cannot be established here, those executive directors who feel their nonprofit was more successful over the past year also feel more supported by their board across all key tasks and responsibilities.” A 2016 US national study on the perspective of board chairs reports, “The strongest board chair-CEO relationships are characterized by mutual trust and respect, a balance between governance and management, and regular open communication.”

Is this just a regular HR issue?

The answer is both yes and no. While legally, as Humphrey says, “power, responsibility, authority, liability is all with the board”, the fact remains that, with the board responsible for hiring and firing an executive director, this is both a regular HR issue and a unique one. Picot says that while managing an executive director is a governance issue, it is also a human resources one and ”we need to afford same respect to EDs as we do to other employees.” According to Humphrey, “The board’s job is to make it clear what ED’s job is. The board needs to delegate efficiently and effectively by establishing strategic priorities, and delegating these to the chief staff officer who turns this into reality and gives evidence of progress back to the board.” Humphrey adds that “99% of problems between an ED and board come from a lack of clear definition of roles and responsibilities, people making assumptions about their work or not complying with these defined roles.”

On the other hand, as Garthson observes, the management of an executive director by a board of directors is “very different from a normal workplace relationship.” She adds, “Unlike most reporting relationships, an executive director doesn’t report to a single boss (or even the kind of supervision of matrix reporting) but legally to an entire board. Further challenges come into play in that the board are volunteers who are not there every day and who likely don’t have human resources training. Normal HR thinking doesn’t work very well in this context.”

Because of this unusual relationship necessitated by the governance structure, Garthson says, this is an human resources issue most people don’t know how to handle. This can be seen in her observation that while most nonprofit employees have performance objectives and feedback, most EDs never receive formal feedback from their boards. This can leave executive directors alone to sort out strategic priorities — with problems arising when the board believes they should be doing something else.

Note: What if an employee has issues with difficult ED? Facilitation consultant Rebecca Sutherns encourages boards to set up clear formal channels through which employees can communicate concerns (such as an HR committee), as well as developing informal points of contact between board members and employees.

Dos and don’ts of dealing with a challenging ED

Do:

1. Figure out what is difficult and what is the source of difficulty. Picot says, “When we talk about a difficult ED, we first have to define difficult and to figure out the source of the difficulty.” She adds that sometimes just because a board thinks an ED is being difficult doesn’t necessarily mean they are.

2. Look in the mirror. Garthson suggests, “You can’t have an issue with difficult person without looking at both sides. A board needs to look inward and ask: are we causing the problem? Are we the reason the ED seems like a problem? Are we giving too many priorities to staff? Are we (or is one board member) meddling in operational matters or not playing our own proper role?”

3. Clarify roles, strategic priorities, etc. While ideally this happens in the first place as part of a good hiring process, it’s never too late for a board of directors to clarify for themselves and the ED their respective roles and responsibilities, and the strategic priorities they want the executive director to pursue.

4. Evaluate your ED, give feedback and monitor. As Garthson noted, few EDs receive performance feedback or evaluations. Once a board has determined its roles and strategic priorities, they can establish clearly what they want, how the ED can improve and a system for measuring that improvement. Garthson also advises that immediate and regular feedback from the board to the ED is far more meaningful than annual feedback. She encourages boards to hold a closed executive session at every board meeting where any concerns with an ED can be flagged and then addressed promptly.

5. Invest in your ED. Regardless of whether the difficulty being faced with an ED is beccause of a personality conflict or is more situational, investing in the development of the ED is an effective response (and one that is cheaper than beginning a new search process, observes Picot). This investment could include coaching, skills training or bringing in an external organizational consultant or interpersonal communications consultant to examine the working dynamic and to help sort out where the breakdown in communication has occurred.

6. Listen. “A listening board is an effective board,” says Picot, who encourages boards to sit down with their ED and just listen without interruption or defensiveness. An article on dealing with difficult leaders cautions, “Don’t assume ill intent or you’ll set them up for failure. They will never be able to overcome your prejudice.” Listening is also vital when a usually easy-to-work-with ED becomes difficult: there may be something in their personal life which is impacting their work and they would likely benefit from the board listening, caring and making a plan together to support the leader. Building this capacity for EDs to be open, Sutherns believes, will help them be appropriate gatekeepers of information between the board and staff. Where the relationship between the board and ED lacks trust, Picot suggests this listening process can involve an external consultant who listens to the ED’s frustrations and concerns, before bringing the board into the listening process.

Don’t:

1. Be afraid of confrontation. Picot suggests the sector needs to become more willing to engage in potentially confrontational questions. Often, Garthson says, the most important conversations happen in the parking lot after board meetings, where people say the things they should have said at the meeting. She adds that often the best approach is to ask questions and make statements that clarify intention such as, “Tell me how you reached that opinion.” At the same time, there is no need to cultivate unnecessary conflict. if a board chair recognizes that s/he is a key part of an issue with an ED, another board member may be assigned to take the lead on the situation.

2. Be too reactive. Picot cautions boards against reacting too strongly and quickly. “We get mad and want to take action but this is dangerous at the board level.” In England, where Picot has also worked, she observes that any ED must be given three to six months’ notice, something she says encourages boards to work on solutions, even with problematic leaders.

3. Be afraid of letting someone go. While there are many strategies boards can adopt in bettering the working relationship with an ED, the organization suffers if a board is unwilling to fire an ED who has demonstrated ongoing unwillingness to move toward the board’s stated strategic priorities or who no longer (or ever) fits the organization’s needs. Sometimes a personality fit cannot be created. “Ultimately,” says Picot, “sometimes a board needs to make the decision to let a leader go. Too many organizations are scared to do this and they let it roll on and on and it creates a really bad atmosphere.” One organization had an ED with what they described as a “bombastic personality”. Although they received complaints about this leader from funders, staff and partners, it took nine years before the board was willing to fire the ED, a delay which resulted in a toxic environment for the entire organization and which distracted everyone from their real mandate.

4. Drag it out. Picot says, “It’s very easy to get caught up in the drama and difficulties between the board and the ED and to forget our actual mission and who and what we are there to serve. Dragging out a conflict, especially without addressing it in an effective way, impacts the staff team and our mission.”

Despite the stress of the position and the sometimes adversarial relationship between EDs and their boards, executive directors and board members alike are motivated by wanting to make a difference through the mission of their organization. Addressing the relational and governance challenges between these pivotal leaders can only enhance the work of the organization and the sector, and make the experience of its leadership far more positive.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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