By Judith Martin
Another year, another board Chair. With the outgoing Chair’s departure, I was sure the coming year would be less challenging. I’d observed the Vice-Chair in action. I was sure we’d work well together when his term commenced. His quiet and modest demeanour suggested an open-minded approach to making good governance decisions. I was wrong.
Have you ever held an executive position that left you questioning your capabilities to handle the job? What put you on edge? Was it an incompetent board Chair? Or was it the Board of Directors’ inability to define their roles and undertake their responsibilities? Perhaps in-fighting was raging and damaging morale. Or was it an accumulation of issues leading to your own self-doubt? Is it me? Are my expectations too high? What have I done wrong?
It is June, 2012. I have completed all the requisite tasks, delegated work to each of the staff, cleared my office. Everything is in order for me to leave. A final lunch with a number of my cohorts is scheduled in one hour. But questions persist. Where are the Board members who are supposed to be escorting me out? No one appears available. What about an exit interview? Nothing scheduled. Where is the package I am to be offered? No numbers on the table. Where is my termination letter? I’m still waiting to see it. I called one Board member and asked what was taking so long. The letter wasn’t ready. Since I had a good working relationship with this particular Board member, I told him I was leaving and to contact me at his convenience. I knew that I could not work in such an environment another day. Yes, I had given up.
Following lunch, I held my head high, wished my staff well and walked out of that office for the very last time. No regrets. I loved my job and my staff. I put everything I could into creating a high- performance culture that, to date, had experienced several successes. Unfortunately, one problematic dynamic persisted to create major issues and ongoing struggles. No, not the Board, not the committees, not individual Board members, and certainly not the staff. What it came down to was my inability to establish and/or facilitate a strong working relationship with the last two board Chairs.
Let me give you a snapshot of my experiences that led to my departure on June 30, 2012, plus my comments on what I have since learned.
Life for me is about maximizing achievement. I do this by developing a clear vision and planning the action steps that need to be taken to reach it. I focus my energy on how best to achieve goals and/or finding new ways to improve things. Identified as having an introverted intuition with extroverted behaviour, I base my decisions on logic. Since I have a high need for privacy, organization, autonomy and competence, I get stressed with a lack of structure, or a lack of competence in the people I am working with. I can easily become irritated by leaders who do not know what they want or what they are doing.
This past fall, I completed the final course in the CAE® (Certified Association Executive) Program. To complete the course I needed to write a research paper. It didn’t take long for me to determine a research topic: Does governance affect the Chief Staff Officer’s stress level? I knew this would prove to be intriguing research since I had just experienced two years in a demanding work situation. It hadn’t been immediate, but eventually I realized I was suffering from a number of stress-related symptoms and my health was at risk. Certainly we need some stress to stimulate us, but distress is the overwhelming stress that hinders rather than stimulates. Stress is a factor in eleven of fifteen causes of death in Canada and is a significant reason for physician visits. Being a systems thinker, I had to make sense of what happened to me. By doing so, I gained a clear perspective regarding the common pitfalls encountered working as part of a Board infrastructure. My observations are offered for your consideration with the intent that you could apply them.
As indicated earlier, I have a high need for autonomy and competence. When I started in my executive position the Board of Directors gave me that independence. Their strategy outlined a need for me to increase membership and improve the overall operating finances. When I requested purchases or additional staff, as long as I provided evidence of available funding based on budgetary considerations, I got it. When I started I was the sole employee and when I left there were four additional staff members. This increase reflected my efforts and met the Board’s objectives. I did what I had to do and they applauded my success.
At the time, I would have called this good governance. I was allowed to have autonomy and a number of my research examples would support this statement. In reality though, I would have to argue that neither the Chair of the Board nor I as Executive Director had a clear, knowledgeable understanding at the time of a policy board, or what it meant to operate with good governance. Maybe they chose to ignore it because what they had was working.
My research found that in certain scenarios, the relationship between the Chief Elected Officer (CEO) and the Chief Staff Officer (CSO) is perceived as good to excellent and training on governance is neither supported nor believed necessary. Maybe there was also that sort of collusion within the Board. Initially, it didn’t appear as such. This type of Board/Chief Staff Officer relationship can work until a shift in the balance occurs. Perhaps the CSO decides to work towards his/her CAE® designation and discovers there are changes that need to be made with board governance and/or operations. Maybe team-building becomes a priority. Or a new Board member steps in to introduce dialogue that will lead to the Board becoming a stronger governing body. Introducing the idea that the CSO has exercised too much power or control over the association and it is time to fire them is certain to create upheaval. Any change, whether instigated or imposed tends to wreak havoc when it disrupts the status quo.
It was spring, 2010, when I decided it was time to work towards my CAE® designation. I advanced with planning until it became time for the association, staff and Board to assist in building an even broader vision. I established the basic parameters for moving forward. With the assistance of procedures outlined in my CAE® courses, we aimed to become the high performing association that our colleagues in other provinces, including the national association, would consider an inspiration. It’s simple. The logical sense of how this would work was outlined in reports I made to the Board. If this sequential process was so easy, why did I get such resistance from the Board? Some Board members thought change wasn’t necessary. The Chair, however, decided he favoured change, but indicated he wouldn’t be taking direction from me since he would be implementing the process. Actually I was thrilled. Board members tend to listen to other Board members.
Although this Chair was action-oriented, he set out to pursue his own agenda; had little or no understanding for other points of view and displayed a sense of entitlement that proved ineffective for the association and the people who encountered it. He also thought that managing the Executive Director (me) and the association was his role rather than leading and managing the Board of Directors. From my perspective, this confusion, when leaders integrate their personal agendas with their responsibilities, sends a mixed message and is one of the major hurdles that must be addressed when dealing with any Board position.
To my dismay, the incoming Chair completely ignored what the outgoing Chair tried to introduce, while also rejecting any of my suggestions for improving governance and operational procedures. Initially, I thought he was open-minded, but I soon found out differently. He was completely disengaged from the Board and the association’s mission. He bypassed the rules that he assumed didn’t apply to him. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to tell any Chair that they are not doing their job. No one was prepared to do it. Two years without a supportive relationship between myself and the Chair led to impossibilities. Without a commitment to this relationship, my ability to function as an effective leader was greatly undermined and my credibility was rapidly diminishing. The ensuing stress levels that I began to experience soon raised a red flag and signalled a need for change that ultimately led to my departure.
My research showed that the CSO’s who rated themselves as excellent leaders have one thing in common – their relationship with their Board Chair is rated between superior and excellent. In examining this further, the reason the samples cited would have a poor relationship with the Chair wasn’t due to the Board operating with poor governance. Generally, it is because the Chair was a disengaged Board member or lacked the knowledge to effectively govern. Coaching a Board is a challenge if the Chair is not open to new ideas or new ways of doing things. I worked tirelessly introducing different methods to help Board members understand and learn to govern well. Yet my efforts met with no success. Finally, feeling defeated, I knew the quality of my health and well-being were being compromised. I also knew the Chair was seeking support from the Board to dismiss me. This realization prompted me to take action and in the best interests of everyone involved, I finally chose flight over fight.
It is with utmost certainty that Board performance and the relationship with the Chief Elected Officer will affect the stress level of the CSO. As an Executive Director, if this is the case for you then you must examine whether you are operating in an unhealthy environment. My research identified four levels of stressful work environments that stated the following:
A CSO working in an extremely stressful environment: the relationship with the Board Chair is poor.
The CSO in a not at all stressful environment: the relationship with the Board Chair is superior and the overall governance is good.
The CSO in a moderately stressful environment: the relationship with Board Chair is good to excellent, but there is no clear model of good governance.
The CSO in a somewhat stressful environment: the relationship with the Board Chair is good to excellent, there is no evidence that indicates a model of good governance is in operation, and the CSO may not have the knowledge or understanding of what a good governance model would be.
Consider what level of stress exists within your work environment. The key question still remains….
Is your health, as an executive director, at risk?
In summary, the partnership established between the Chief Staff Officer and the Board Chair is a critical component for good governance. The interaction between the two builds on regular communication and developing a framework to deal with any problems as they arise. Good governance requires an agreement and commitment to Board training, thus ensuring the Board has the competencies required to do their important work.
In retrospect, should I decide to return to employment in an association executive capacity, I would need to ensure that the Board understood and operated with a clear set of policies and guidelines that defined effective management; the Chair was trained for his/her role; the Board received orientation to the organization; and the defined goals provided a framework for support to the staff, the membership and mandate of the association. Only then would I be able to acknowledge that I had chosen an enlightened work environment that adhered to the principles of good governance.