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Board and Executive Director Partnership by Kent Wilson


Christian Leadership Alliance

By Kent Wilson

In previous blogs we’ve mentioned that the board of a nonprofit organization and the Executive Director/CEO both share steward leadership responsibilities of the organization. The board serves as the “Chief Steward” of the organization, responsible to God and the stakeholders for overall oversight, governance, and accountability for the organization as it works to achieve its mission. The Executive Director or CEO is the “Under Steward,” reporting to the board and responsible for day-to-day leadership and management of the staff and programs. Together, both make up a partnership that manages the resources of the organization to achieve the mission and goals of the stakeholders.

But what happens if either party in this steward leader partnership doesn’t hold up their end of the trust? The results will be less-than-ideal stewardship and leadership, and in some cases could prove fatal to the future of the organization. The following four-quadrant chart adopted from an excellent book on nonprofit governance by Chait, Ryan and Taylor (Governance as Leadership, 2004) shows what happens. The vertical axis shows two levels of board engagement (“low” and “high”) while the horizontal axis is the level of CEO or executive engagement.

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In the upper-right quadrant, the board and executive operate as partners, respecting each other’s distinctive roles and collaborating on stewarding the organization. The board and executive are both operating at a high performance level. The board is engaged, creative, understands its Chief Steward role, and views the executive as a true stewardship partner.

When the there is a low-performing board and a high performing executive (lower-right quadrant), there is stewardship by proxy. This most often occurs as a result of one of two scenarios: Either the executive is forced to step in to compensate for board failure, or the board is kept at arms-length by an over-bearing executive (as is sometimes the case with founder-led organizations). Stewardship by proxy results in ineffective leadership and the stakeholders are often left in the dark, wondering whether the organization is accountable to anyone.

When the roles are reversed and the board is high performing but the executive low performing, there is stewardship by fiat (upper-left quadrant). In this scenario, the board replaces the executive by either stepping in and doing the executive’s job (i.e. becoming operationally focused) or the board renders the executive ineffective through micro-management. The executive may either be unqualified for the position, untaught, underutilized, or possibly even demeaned. The organization may appear to operate effectively for a while, but eventually the board will tire of their all-consuming role and be forced to deal with the ineffective executive.

Finally, in a worst-case scenario where both board and executive are low performing (lower left quadrant), there is stewardship by default or neglect (assuming the organization survives at all). In this case, highly committed staff members or stakeholders may step in and temporarily run the organization, but there will be little stewardship leadership or accountability, and the organization is probably on a fast-track to oblivion.

In what quadrant is your organization functioning at the moment? What changes need to be made if you are not operating with a true steward leadership partnership between board and executive?

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Kent Wilson (PhD) is a leadership coach and nonprofit leadership specialist. After running nonprofit organizations for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International and program coordinator for CLA’s Leader2Leader peer advisory program. He is also co-founder of the Steward Leader Initiative, and frequently trains boards in steward-governance.

Christian Leadership Alliance

Leader2Leader (L2L) is another lifelong learning experience presented by Christian Leadership Alliance. L2L are peer advisory groups for senior executive nonprofit leaders.  Meetings are held monthly for half a day. Interested in joining or starting a group? CLA can make that happen for you.

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