When those two perspectives emerge in an association environment, it's time for everyone to step back and reflect on why they are in their roles and what those roles truly mean. More importantly, it's important for the executive and the volunteer to listen to the other...to try to learn something.
The confusion and perturbation that arises when staff and volunteer see one another as belonging to "the opposition" are destructive and disquieting. They get in the way of getting the organization's work done. They make working and volunteering for the association unhappy and distressing. When egos and misunderstandings get out of the way, though, everyone can be happier and more productive. But it takes effort.
One of the easiest ways to understand the roles of association executives and elected volunteers is to compare them to their "equivalents" in the corporate world.
The chief staff executive of an association is equivalent to the CEO of a corporation. In both cases, the board of directors hires the individual (or, quite wisely, the management firm) who, then, is given boundaries of authority and objectives to reach. The differences in the manner in which board members are compensated are where the comparisons begin to break down...but they shouldn't. Nonprofit board members are "paid" primarily in recognition and a sense of contribution to the "cause." In addition, they may have a few perquisites, but generally speaking they simply get acknowledgement and the appreciation of their peers. Corporate board members generally get paid in hard cash. They, too, may get a sense of accomplishment, but there's no question that money speaks on corporate boards.
If members of association boards were satisfied with their "pay," there might be fewer instances of micromanagement. Many association board members, though, seem to believe that the differences between them and corporate board members are monumental. They sometimes seem to believe they should be more involved in the day-to-day operation of the association than the corporate board member should be in the day-to-day operation of the corporation. That may be understandable, considering the fact that for-profit boards tend to pay rather enormous salaries to their chief executives, while association boards tend to want their executives to get the bulk of their compensation in intellectual fulfillment. (That last comment was made simply to prove that I am human.)
"If only they understood," complain association executives about their boards, "they'd realize that their micromanagement is doing more harm than good!" Association board members tend to have a counter view, saying "I was elected to oversee the operation of this organization and I must be involved to fulfill my responsibility!"
Both perspectives are flawed. The association executive fails to fully grasp the legitimacy, in concept, of the volunteer leader's attitude. From the association executive's point of view, the volunteer should simply chart the course and get out of the way. That's not true of an association environment any more than it is of a corporate environment. In fact, recent high-profile cases of boards failing to fulfill their fiduciary duties to shareholders point to the need for more oversight by corporate boards.
The volunteer does not quite understand the difference between governance and management and the distinction between oversight and meddling. From the volunteer's perspective, fiduciary duties require the volunteer's authorization for actions by staff and they require the volunteer to make the decisions which staff is then to implement. Again, that's not true in either a corporate or an association environment.
The association executive who is frustrated by someone he or she sees as an intrusive volunteer is missing something. The volunteer who is frustrated by an executive who the volunteer sees as uncooperative and unwilling to acknowledge the volunteer's primacy is missing something, too.
They are missing a complete understanding of their roles and the motives of the other person involved in the situation. An association executive's role is to implement board policy, but it is also to provide advice and counsel to the board. The executive director of an association is also required to share information with the board, to ensure that the board is fully informed. The volunteer's role is to develop policy, but also to monitor the executive's performance to ensure that the policy is being implemented. The volunteer is required to give feedback to the executive, to ensure that the executive knows how he or she is perceived. Sometimes the "issues" are simply matters of trust. Open discussions about what the issues are can go a long way toward resolving the problem.
- The key in both corporate and association environments is that both require:
clear definitions of boundaries within which the executive has latitude to act;
- clear definitions of the types of actions/decisions that must have board review and approval;
- clear understanding by the board and the executive of what reporting is needed, how frequently, and to whom; and
- regular performance assessments, in both directions, discussed openly between the board and the executive.
Whenever there are concerns about micromanagement by the board or unnecessary consolidation of power by the executive, the time is immediately right for a candid conversation. Both groups must make it a point to try to learn what is bothering the other and both must make a commitment to correct the problem.
Finally, such situations are never comfortable, but there's no reason to hide them under the rug, either. It happens in the best of associations. In the really good associations, these situations get resolved quickly and completely.