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Amy Wishnick

About Amy

A Case Against Playing Good Cop, Bad Cop with the Board

Bad news is a fact of life, including organizational life, and it can be difficult to deliver. There are times, for example, when budgets are tight and the staff needs to be cut, is asked to take voluntary furloughs, or must accept delayed paychecks. Or, services or hours of operation need to be cut back.

It can be tempting to blame these unpleasant decisions on the board, since the board may be a mysterious, unseen reality that staff rarely encounter.

But avoid this temptation. Don’t throw your board under the bus when you have to deliver bad or disappointing news to your staff. Own being the executive leader—the good and the not so good of it. Be honest. Your staff can take it and will respect you for it. So will your board.

When you blame a difficult decision on the board, you drive a wedge between the two constituencies that are vital to your organization’s success and, perhaps, to your own personal success. In some organizations, the staff and board don’t know each other very well. In your leadership role, you can foster mutual trust.

The Board is Not the Bad Guy

Your board of directors has an important job—keeping your organization in trust for future generations (or at least future clients, possibly after you have retired or moved on). They need to make choices with this in mind. Sometimes their decisions will appear drastic to staff, or even pernicious. Even though you have had input, you may not always agree with the results. However, part of your job is implementing board decisions and this begins with translating these to the staff. You must help your staff understand the context and factors that have led to the decisions.

The Staff is not Unaware

Staff is out in front delivering your services and bringing your organization’s mission to life. They read the paper, listen to the news, hear people talk. In Illinois in 2016, they are fully aware of the dire and dysfunctional fiscal situation that has brought social services to near-shutdown.

To have a healthy organization you have to create opportunities for board and staff to get to know each other. Out of understanding comes trust. With trust, your staff is less likely to perceive the board of directors as the bad guy.

You have a pivotal role as the link between staff and the board. When you talk about individual directors’ connections to the mission, the board’s combined commitment to the organization, their fundraising achievements, and more, you send a powerful message to staff. Conversely, the board relies on you to convey the skills and knowledge staff brings to their jobs and their depth of understanding of the work.

Moments When Staff-Board Understanding is Important

There will come a time in your organization’s life cycle when the board of directors and the staff will need to work together. Here are two prime examples:

Example 1. Your organization is ready to create a strategic plan to chart the course for the future. Among the board’s key fiduciary responsibilities is setting the strategic vision and articulating organizational priorities. The key staff responsibility is to serve the clients and bring your organization’s mission to life. When staff appreciates the board’s motives and the board grasps the significance of the work, they will be able to embrace the future as a team.

Example 2. You have decided to move on or retire. When this time comes, the board and staff must be allies working together to ensure a smooth leadership transition. Each group has a unique role in the transition. It will be up to the board of directors to manage the leadership transition and find your successor. This is among the most important tasks a board undertakes. Wisely, they will involve staff in specific, appropriate ways in order to benefit from their special perspective. Staff trust in the board correlates to their comfort with the process. The smooth onboarding of a new executive is associated with the board’s open communication with staff about the process. When staff and board work together, combining their talents and ably fulfilling their discrete sets of responsibilities, the organization will thrive.

In these scenarios, each group represents a distinctive perspective on the organization—its needs, its aspirations, its strengths, and its challenges. Together, bound by a common set of organizational values, the board, staff, and the organization succeed.

How to Build Mutual Trust and Collegiality

There are several ways to foster the connection between board and staff. In last month’s post, I suggested having staff present at board meetings. The benefits of this one are obvious. Another way is to plan events where the board and staff can meet each other socially. Potluck dinners, picnics, or ballgame outings in the summer are known opportunities. An internal day of service, such as painting or cleaning, provides a shared experience during which relationships form with your organization being the direct beneficiary on multiple levels. Everyone in it together—board and staff, no matter what the activity, serves as a reminder that these different groups are working toward the same goal.

Your staff takes its cues from you. So does your board. What actions are you taking to build a cohesive board/staff team?


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