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What Your Executive Director Would Like You to Know –But May Be Afraid to Tell You

Can your imagine what would be different at your meetings, if you could hear the thoughts that run through your Executive Director’s head? This article shares a dozen of the most common ones. During the last sixteen years of consulting with nonprofits, nonprofit executives have shared these thoughts with me when they talked about their boards. Knowing their thoughts will help you to better lead the organization. To help you create highly productive meetings, we include suggested actions in response to each thought.

1. “Meetings are stressful.” In a well-designed meeting, the executive director must convey critical information, obtain key decisions, avoid wasting time, maintain his or her job security and build relationships with key donors. In other words, in 90-minutes much must be juggled. Action: How can you help?

  • Clarify the key decisions to be made in advance
  • Limit agendas to three or less key items
  • Help everyone to convey information via alternative formats, like email

2. “Can we be on the same page?” Being on the same pageisn’t necessarily agreeing how to handle a $50,000 donation. Instead, it means agreeing about how your meetings will run, including their length and structure. Being on the same page means working together to help speakers to summarize their thoughts. Action: Work together to create an experience conducive to conducting business.

3. “Um, What did we decide?” Some boards discuss issues and move on without clarifying their decisions. Boardmembersare often comfortable with this state of limbo. However, the executive director must act on and communicate decisions to others. Action: Help your organization by clarifying the decisions made “for the minutes.” Take it a step further: help the board outline what will be done, who is responsible and its expected timeframe.

4. “Stick to the agenda.” In part, board members are invited to join boards because of the depth of experiences, passion and connections. When you are passionate about your cause, it is tempting to share everything you know. However, if everyone spends five minutes sharing knowledge or a great story, the whole meeting will be expended without completing the agenda. Action: Resistthe temptation to share irrelevant yarns and information. When others forget, encourage a re-focus on the agenda.

5. “Don’t surprise me.” Its great to introduce new important topics, but when boards spend hours on new concepts because no homework has been done, few quality decisions result. Action: Avoid bombshells. When they fall on you anyway, schedule time to discuss the issue after everyone prepares.

6. “While I don’t want micro managing, sometimes I invite it.” One universal complaint is that “the boss” micromanages them. In this case, the complaint is that the board micromanages staff. For instance, during your meeting, the executive director shares that a program has additional capacity. By raising the topic, he intends to share that in the next 30 days he will research the best ways to respond to this opportunity. Instead, he immediately receives a dozen directions. He perceives this as micro managing. Action: How can you help? Avoid offering solutions until after you hear what the presenter needs from the Board.

7. “I need your help with vision, goals, decisions and establishing limits.” If the executive director brings three options to you and asks for a decision, the board needs to make one –or provide alternative directions. Action: Guide staff by establishing cost and other limits. “Let’s set a price range of $5,000, complete it within three months and ask the special events task force to tackle it.”

8. “Sometimes your ideas, while well-intentioned, send staff on crazy tangents.” By all means share your ideas, that’s why you were invited to join the board. However, recognize that many appealing ideas are difficult or impossible to execute. Action: Ask staff to investigate feasible ideas. Then, move on. You will have more ideas. If you really want to implement ideas, consider a staff position with this or another organization. Or, join a committee whose work is to implement them.

9. “What is the big picture?” With the press of daily tasks, it is easy for an executive director to get lost. They appreciate your help, perspective and sharing the progress you notice progress. Are you increasing your capacity? Are you reaching more members of the community with your message? Do more people express an understanding of your work? Action: Help the executive director and others to notice and celebrate these victories.

10.“I would like to do more strategy thinking when we gather, but the crush the urgent waylays us.” Organization’s that think strategically benefit from making quicker and better decisions about new and current opportunities. Action: How you can help? Ask thoughtful questions about items on the agenda like:

  • What is the big picture here?
  • Do we agree on the best route to our goals?
  • What is success? What will success look like?
  • What others steps can get us to the same goal?

11. “No matter how experienced we are, we all have a lot to learn and opportunities to grow.” Action: Help us to be a learning organization. Read a book on boards. Pick up a text about the field. Attend trainings on your own dime. Budget money for staff and board training.

12. “We need your financial support. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and their ilk are not going to support us before our own board members. Action: Remember that board members need to jump in financially first. And, while significant gifts are always welcome, you most important gift is your participation. This allows the nonprofit to announce, “we have 100 percent board participation” –a critical threshold in obtaining other donations.

While no one executive director thinks all these thoughts at every meeting, most think all of them sometime during a year. Use the comments in this article to “hear” your executive director. It will increase your value as a partner in your organization’s success. What’s more, your executive is likely to think you both clairvoyant and wise. In either case, you will both be able to work better together to move your organization toward its mission.

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