The Complementary Roles of the Chief Executive and your Governing Board

Sometimes, even the best boards and seasoned executive directors clash and have trouble  staying in their respective “responsibility lanes” as the organization’s leadership team.  An excellent example might be when boards get directly involved with selecting and overseeing staff when they have a successful chief staff executive for such purposes.  Why might a board involve themselves in what is clearly a management responsibility?  Simply.  It’s what they are familiar with, despite the fact that it’s a responsibility they can and should delegate.

Certainly, if the working relationship between the board and executive director is noticeably broken, that situation should be addressed as soon as possible.  An outside management and governance coach is probably worth bringing in.  Even if everything is working smoothly between the board and the executive, an annual refresher can help keep the working relationships strong and the organization running smoothly for the coming year.

In our AMC practice we’ve found the following definitions and guidelines useful to distinguish the complementary roles that exist in an organization’s leadership team.

Management is about:

  • Achieving results  task completion
  • Making effective and efficient use of resources
  • Monitoring processes, and making service and production improvements over time
  • Taking care of the details and making frequent decisions
  • Answering the HOW questions

Governance is about:

  • Setting goals and directions
  • Determining broad priorities
  • Cultivating key external relationships
  • Setting the organization’s values and tone
  • Answering the big WHAT and WHY questions

The time-horizon is also an important complement for board members and the executive director.  Given the executive director’s operational responsibilities, it just makes sense that everything occurring within the coming 12 months belongs to the executive director, especially if it’s executing on a strategic plan endorsed by the board of directors.  Conversely, everything that involves the next year and beyond should be the primary concern of the board of directors.

Air Traffic Control vs. Ground Control

These complementary roles are much like managing air traffic at an airport.  Air traffic control is responsible for identifying and guiding incoming air traffic.  In an organization, the board is responsible for the big picture items.  But once that aircraft is on approach to land at a particular airport, ground control takes over and is responsible for safely getting that aircraft to its gate and parked.  The two control centers perform a hand-off and in so doing, they respect and support each other’s missions and responsibilities.

A Helpful Suggestion

Schedule an annual retreat to review board and staff roles.  It doesn’t need to take a great deal of time.  An hour or an hour and a half can pay big dividends to get everyone on the same page about who is responsible for what within your organization’s leadership team.

Posted in Governance, Governance vs. Management, Management, Videos.

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