Why You Need to Stick to Your Lane – and How!Feb 27, 2023
A common issue for Boards and their Chief Executive Officers is the areas of responsibility and accountability.
The Chief Executive Officer handles management and operations – so get out of the way. The Board handles planning and policy – so understand your power here! Here are a few challenges and a suggestion.
Although policy development and strategic planning are the Board’s responsibility, any successful Executive Director will have a deep understanding of the processes and expectations as well as, of course, the other areas of Board responsibility. This enables the CEO to advise and support the Board in its work far more effectively. Similarly, although it is the CEO’s responsibility, the Board needs to have at least a basic understanding of management and operations in order to make good policies and plans and to communicate with their community.
So, there is no black-and-white situation, no line in the sand. A grey area but with often unspoken expectations and resentments. The Board often veers into operations. And it is not your CEO’s, your employee’s, job to tell you to back off – it is up to the Chair.
Let’s be clear. It works both ways.
A Chief Executive Officer or Executive Director who turns to the Board for decisions related to management or operations is abdicating responsibility. Sadly, for the Board, management and operations can be just much more interesting than policy and planning… so they happily engage. Wrong!
Who is handling the Board’s four unique responsibilities (set direction; develop the partnership with the CEO; ensure sustainable resources; assess and audit programs and finances) if the Board is doing the job for which they hired their Chief Officer?
Aside from operations being more appealing (not to mention concrete), and aside from the Board being diverted from its unique responsibilities and indeed its source of power (governance as leadership), the whole episode confuses accountability.
Who is responsible for outcomes if the Board is making management decisions? For what are you paying your Chief Officer? Although it is a bit glib, the appropriate response (with a smile of course!) is that “the answer to how is ‘yes’.”
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Asked by the CEO how the policy is to be implemented, the Board might respond: “the answer to how is ‘yes’.” It is entirely up to you with your knowledge and expertise in operations and the staff.
Asked by the Board how they are going to approach a management decision, the Executive Director might respond: “the answer to how is ‘yes’.” It is my responsibility; I’ve got it.
This is not going to be appropriate in every situation. But it does suggest that there are lanes, and leave it to me to sort it out. It is my role. It is my job.
Three bottom-line takeaways here from my experience:
- Stick to your own lane or your unique responsibilities will not be addressed.
- Don’t engage in operations and confuse accountability.
- It is up to the Chair to provide firm guidance on when lines are crossed and to lead the Board out of the Executive Director’s arena.
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