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  • Caryn Bosson

“Stay out of my lane!” Rules of the road for nonprofit leaders

Traffic sign

A beleaguered executive director once complained to me about a board member who loved to play “boss.” This board officer would “check in on” various staff members to see how they were doing and give them impromptu feedback and suggestions.

This did not go over well with the Executive Director, whose job description it was to supervise staff.

“I wish she'd stay out of my lane,” she grumbled.

Was supervising staff anywhere in that Board Member’s job description?

Before you slam down your fist and yell “no!” (especially you beleaguered Executive Directors), I propose that sometimes it just might depend on the situation.

As much as non-profit boards are warned against micro-managing through and around their chief executive, there can be times when playing a hands-on role is appropriate. That’s one of the many ways in which nonprofits are messy (the title of the podcast by nonprofit guru Joan Garry).

Crystal-clear, spelled-out roles are the ideal, but there are times when these need to be left by the roadside.

Granted, what could be perceived as micro-managing is not the job of nonprofit boards. First and foremost they are responsible for the governance of the organization, the big decisions such as setting the mission, approving the budget, and ensuring financial responsibility. The Executive Director is responsible for the daily management of the organization, ensuring that the lights are on and the staff are well managed.

Generally, the clearer the roles, the more harmony there is — let alone effectiveness.

So when would it ever be appropriate for a board (or a board member) to pull out in front of the chief executive into "their" lane?

In the next several blog posts I’ll explore this question.

For now, EDs and Board Members, if you feel your lane is being encroached upon, take a few deep breaths before road rage sets in. Better yet, find a way to talk to each other before it ever escalates.

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