The Board’s Investment in the CEO

What happens when the board of directors of a nonprofit organization is satisfied with the performance of its CEO, but feels it needs some management consulting? Because of the delicacy of this situation, there are several steps that should be taken when broaching the subject to the CEO and in considering it with members of the board. When done in a professional and appropriate way, engaging a consultant not only helps the CEO grow and develop, but also enhances the functions of the agency.

Once the CEO recognizes the need to improve his or her understanding of the issues confronted in the position and in further developing the skills necessary to carry out the responsibilities entailed in the job then it is not unusual for the person to engage a consultant. Of course, it is advantageous to both the CEO and the board when there is a mutual recognition for the need for management assistance. In this situation, the CEO, having the budgeted funds, would find a consultant suitable for the presenting challenges and engage in a process for the determined period of time.

However, occasionally the chairperson of the board and/or one of the volunteer leaders may identify areas in which the CEO could personally and professionally benefit from the use of a management consultant to strengthen his or her performance. When this happens it usually means there is a great deal of respect for the CEO and a desire to enable this person to further develop the skill set necessary to carry out the responsibilities of the position. Despite its implications, this scenario does not implicate the CEO or reflect a desire for their position to be terminated.

The volunteer leader who is closest to the CEO should be the one to begin the initial discussion and it is often most appropriate to incorporate it as part of an annual appraisal of the CEO’s job performance. In most nonprofit organizations, the person to initiate the process is the chair of the board although it would not be unusual for it to be a longstanding board member who has experience working with the CEO. If this is the context of the discussion then when there is a focus on areas needing further improvement it is appropriate to suggest that the CEO might find it helpful to work with a management consultant.

The context of the discussion is very important. It is crucial that the board make it clear that they wish to engage a consultant to benefit the CEO and to enable him/her to further develop professional skills. The leadership is expressing their commitment to the CEO’s growth as a professional in the management of the nonprofit organization. In providing this opportunity this is a statement of their confidence in the CEO’s ability to improve their performance in administering the agency.

For example, during the first year of a new CEO working with a nonprofit organization that has a network of afterschool centers for children with special needs there was a great deal of discord and tension between the CEO and the staff. The CEO, after assuming responsibility, wanted to raise the stature of the agency in the community. During the process, the CEO tended to operate unilaterally and did not take advantage of the collective experience of the veteran staff. They were frustrated because they had been marginalized and their involvement in redeveloping the agency was no longer valued.

When the volunteer leaders queried the staff about their relationship with the new CEO they did not criticize her, but they did communicate their frustration. Throughout the first six months the tension between the CEO and the staff continued and there was really no significant improvement. During the first six month review of the CEO’s performance with the chairperson of the board, the CEO discussed the tension when asked about her relationship with the staff.

The CEO was quick to respond that she thought it would work itself out in time and it was not a serious problem. She expressed her sense that it was an issue of differing expectations between her and the staff. Initially, the CEO did not consider the need for seeking consultation on her relationship with the staff and her inability to build a sense of “team” among the directors of the afternoon programs. In response, the chair of the board suggested that she might find it helpful if she considered using the services of a consultant who could assist her both in understanding the tensions and in responding to the dynamics of the staff.

The chairperson’s approach was a supportive one since its focus was on enhancing the effectiveness of the CEO’s leadership. It also helped that this sensitive topic was broached during the six month review and was therefore identified as one area that needed improvement. The CEO did not feel threatened by the suggestion and sensed the concern the chairperson had for her own growth and development as a professional. Due to the timing and nature of the discussion, the CEO decided to follow the suggestion and explore developing a relationship with a management consultant.

The CEO began the process of seeking references and meeting with the people she thought would be most appropriate to assist her in developing her staff and team building skills. In taking advantage of the board’s willingness to invest in her strengthening her relationship with the staff she not only benefited from the consulting relationship but the agency also functioned more effectively due to the lessening of tension between the CEO and the staff.

Thus, the leadership of boards of nonprofit organizations should be willing to invest in their CEO’s professional development. Even when the CEO does not recognize the need for a focus on specific aspects of their performance, the board’s willingness to provide management consulting can benefit both the CEO and the organization.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.