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Centerboard: Who's my boss, anyway?

October 2007
By: Tom Lothamer

I recently introduced one of my board members this way: "Donna serves on our board and is one my bosses." Everyone laughed, but I immediately became aware of my mistake.

I regularly hear from PCC executive directors who are struggling with the problem of having too many bosses. Individual board members may ask them for unnecessary information, give directives to center staff and volunteers, or attempt to monitor the daily duties and functions of the director and staff. Confusion reigns! Nobody knows who "the boss" is. Such board members are overstepping their role and exerting personal authority in the daily operations of the ministry. All of this is done without action from the full board, or even its knowledge.

As I've said in earlier articles, the board operates as one. This means the executive director has only one boss—the entire board acting as a unit—not seven, or ten, or thirteen individual bosses. The executive director is responsible for overseeing the daily operations of the center; the board is responsible for policy, vision, and evaluative oversight of the executive director. The board only acts in unity, and all the members have equal authority in the context of the entire governing body.

Many times board members get off track in this area because they've never learned or don't understand their role as an individual board member in relation to the proper authority of the full board. They mean well, but are misguided. It often appears, however, that they bear ill intent or a desire to exert power.

 THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR HAS ONLY ONE BOSS — THE ENTIRE BOARD ACTING AS A UNIT

Whatever the person's motivation, he or she is wrong to take on any responsibilities of a "boss" unless directed by a decision or knowledge of the full board. The director must inform the board chairperson about any infractions. The chairperson should then contact the offending member to explain proper protocol. If the member acknowledges his or her error and changes his or her conduct, all is well. If the member refuses to accept correction, however, the chairman should raise the issue in the next board meeting and bring a motion for corrective action.

What if the offending party is the chairperson? This creates a much greater problem. Dan Busby, vice president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), says: "As long as the board chair believes he or she has authority to act alone, without full board consent, that ministry will likely struggle in terms of effective shared governance between the board and the executive director. This behavior also makes an appropriate and effective relationship between the board chair and the executive director very challenging."

SOME BOARD MEMBERS NEVER LEARNED OR DON'T UNDERSTAND THEIR ROLE AS AN INDIVIDUAL IN RELATION TO THE PROPER AUTHORITY OF THE FULL BOARD. THEY MEAN WELL, BUT ARE MISGUIDED. 

So what's an executive director to do? I propose three courses of action.

Depending upon the current state of the relationship, the executive director may consider having a heart-to-heart with the chairperson to explain his or her concerns and to share articles or books that spell out the proper role of the chairperson and board members in general. It may be advisable to include another board member in this meeting, such as the vice-chairperson. This approach could establish a platform for good discussion and create greater harmony for effective ministry.

The executive director may suggest scheduling a board retreat to discuss governance and ministry planning. A third-party facilitator who understands board governance should be called in to lead the retreat. Such a retreat could be very beneficial to any board, whether or not any personal or operational struggles exist.

If the executive director can't resolve this dilemma, he or she will either have to accept the dysfunction—doing his or her best to lead the ministry under the circumstances—or consider resigning from the post.

If you struggle with these issues, I encourage you to receive counsel and devise a corrective plan of action. The PCC will suffer if you don't act. 


At the time of this writing, Tom Lothamer was President of Life Matters Worldwide in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 



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