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Jane Tennen

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Poor Internal Communication and the Board (Part 1 of 3)

"I didn't object to that program being cut -- maybe it was a necessary decision. I just objected to the way it was handled." So complained the president of the board of a suburban community center for whose arts department I have been conducting a strategic plan.

Due to budget and staffing constraints, the arts program director had cut a community theatre program -- a program in which the boyfriend of the teenage daughter of the board president happened to be active. The board president had been the last to find out, and the first to call the center's executive director to complain. The executive director called me to alert me to what he portrayed as a gross misstep on the part of the program director -- a person he had felt for some time was not fully qualified for the job. The cutting of the program seemed, to him, to be emblematic of her incompetence.

When I questioned the program director, she indicated that yet another person had been involved in the decision -- an assistant director to whom she reports and who, in turn, reports to the executive director. She had been discussing a possible cut with him for several months, she reported, and she thought she had his blessing.

What, exactly, happened here, and why is it important in a governance context? Truth be told, this organization was primed for information not to flow.

  • The executive director had set up his administration so that he had almost no ongoing participation in the arts program.
  • The assistant director had not taken the initiative to inform the executive director of the potential for the program to be eliminated.
  • The program director had not informed anyone that she was actually about to take action.

The wild card, adding a layer of complication, was the personal connection the board president felt to this particular program and, consequently, his feeling of having been ambushed.

As George Kennedy said to Paul Newman in Hud, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

No organization can succeed over the long haul without systematized and conscientiously followed ways for people to let one another know what's going on. In small, grass-roots settings, communication usually occurs naturally, because board members and staff are in constant communication. In many cases, board members are the staff.

As organizations grow, however, that kind of proximity erodes. As paid administrators become part of the mix, board members necessarily, and appropriately, become less involved in day-to-day matters. And as organizations grow further, members of the executive staff may not be aware of every decision being made, and the board and its officers may be aware of even fewer. Thus, constant communication takes on critical importance so that people can be fully aware of what's going on.

It's challenging for a board member, or a board at large, to walk the line between meddling and being aware of what is going on inside an organization. Tempests do erupt in teapots every so often; that is inevitable. However, unless an organization can devise its own means for activating a culture that assumes communication and dialogue are part of everyday life, these tempests can turn into tornadoes, wreaking unnecessary havoc in their paths.

In part two of this article, I'll suggest some ways to improve organizational communication.

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