How boards can improve the success of the senior staff member

Wooden beams supporting a bridge

“Support Beams” Used with permission.

I wonder how many ministry leaders have their time in office cut short because their boards left them too much on their own? How many boards have ever discussed the question: Who is responsible for the leader’s success? Of course the leader is, but should the board let the leader sink or swim as they watch from shore? Do the directors not have a partial responsibility for the leader’s success?

Having selected a new senior leader for a church or ministry, it is in the best interest of the board and the organization for the board to do everything it can to improve the likelihood of its leader’s success. If the person doesn’t work out, just think of the cost of finding a new leader:

  • Usually a lengthy and painful time as the board wrestles first with identifying the troubling issue, then raising it with the leader, then trying to work through the issue with the leader, and finally terminating the leader if it doesn’t work out
  • After termination, there is usually another lengthy period of time spent doing a strategic review, redefining what is desired in a new leader, advertising the position, and then interviewing candidates
  • A new leader who isn’t already very familiar with the ministry usually needs another year to sort things out before they really understand all the issues and nuances
  • It may take several years before the new leadership team gels into a mature, smoothly functioning group
  • There is also the turmoil that a leadership change can cause among staff, donors, and partners

It just makes sense that a board should invest in the success of the person they’ve chosen to entrust with organizational leadership.

I feel very well supported by the CCCC board, so I’d like to share how they invest in my success as a leader.

I’d also really like to hear what other boards do for their senior staff leader, so please, please comment.

Prayer support

Board members have let me know they pray for me, some daily. It means a lot to know that I’m not on my own. I feel a sense of community when others intercede for me. It leaves me feeling that we are in this together.

Frequent, honest appraisal

We have an in camera meeting at every board meeting which is devoted to only one topic – my performance. This is really great because it means I never have to wonder what the board thinks of me. It also means that if issues arise, they will be dealt with quickly instead of festering for months as directors wrestle with how to broach the issue. I find these in camera sessions confidence-building, affirming, encouraging, and helpful. If it sees ways to help me out, the board can use this time to offer its collective wisdom and advice in a mentor-like capacity. Should an issue arise, the board can also offer its correction. All of this helps a senior leader provide the kind of leadership that the board expects.

Professional development opportunities

I really appreciate that the board provides an amount in its budget for my professional development. Not only that, but board members are on the lookout for interesting educational opportunities for me.

  • I have taken two courses at Harvard Business School for nonprofit leadership because a director found out about them and passed them on to me. I would never have thought of Harvard Business School as having any courses applicable to me, but as my Harvard series of posts shows, there are some great courses for nonprofits.
  • I have my doctorate because a director thought I was capable of getting one and recommended a particular seminary. I thought I was finished my academic education when I got my second Masters degree, but now I have a Doctor of Ministry degree because of this director’s initiative.

Boundary expansion ideas

People don’t really know what their boundaries of imagination are until some external stimulus shows them that the territory of possibilities is larger than imagined. So a board can help its senior staff leader test the limits of his or her realm of possibilities.

  • One way is asking probing questions that challenge a leader to dig deeper. Several directors have asked me excellent questions that triggered expansionary thinking. Sample questions regarding the ministry’s work might be:
    • What are you really passionate about?
    • What are you curious about?
    • What are you concerned about?
    • What upsets you?
  • Another way of expanding the leader’s horizons is to provide a sabbatical to upset the habitual life of the leader. A sabbatical can jar a person out of a rut by exposing them to new people, new places, new education, and so on. Everyone gets into a routine after a while, and for a leader who is supposed to be generating possibilities, routine can be deadly. So a sabbatical should be something that switches things up. I was given a three month sabbatical after seven years (there is a series of posts on that too) that was truly transformational for me and is now transforming CCCC too.
  • The board could ask the leader to:

Reinforcing teamship between board and senior leader

Senior staff leaders will be most successful when there is a mutual sense of shared organizational leadership between board and staff leader. It is not “me versus them”, but ‘the board and I.” The board respects the leadership I give while at the same time keeping the accountability factors in place. There is a healthy sense of the hierarchical relationship that balances teamship between board and staff with the board’s oversight function. It means that I feel empowered to move our ministry forward.

Teamship creates an environment of mutual trust and respect between staff and board. It should eliminate manipulation, politics, defensiveness and all kinds of other negative behaviours that can creep in when teamship is missing.

To maintain teamship:

  • The bylaws give me the right to attend and fully participate in all board and board committee meetings (except my own performance and compensation review of course)
  • The board includes me in its social events
  • The board respects the line between board and staff responsibilities

So what does your board do?

Please use the comments to pass along what your board does to support its leader’s success. Many ministries will be blessed by what you share.

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Thoughts on How boards can improve the success of the senior staff member

  1. Jill Yemen

    I am a new church board member and found this very inspiring. I hope we do many of these suggested “investments”. The only thing I would add is that I think that an area that is easily overlooked is support for these young leaders in their marriages and young families. Funding a weekend away with their spouse and providing child care, or providing an opportunity for the family to experience some event together, or encouraging some boundaries around weeknight committments would go a long way towards a healthy family life. When one hears mention of a “PK” that usual conjurs up negative images of an absent parent, or a child you was always put second to “furthering the Lord’s work” . It’s changing, but It’s slow…

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