Monday, 19 August 2013

The CEO as board chair - my response


Thanks to the team at Vantage Point I recently became aware of an article in the US publication Non-Profit Quarterly. The author, Mike Burns, asks whether non-profit CEOs should also serve as chairs of their boards. 

It’s a good article and well worth a couple of minutes to read. Mike is a consultant in non-profit governance and planning with 35 years of experience so I assume he knows his stuff, he certainly provides a sensible take on the issues involved. He doesn’t seem to resort to crude assumptions that paying people results in better quality work than relying on volunteers, an ingredient of almost every argument put forward by advocates of paid charity governance here in the UK.

The blog by Vantage Point that drew me to Mike’s article contained their own response to his thoughts. The core of their response was that the core os the issue was not about organisational structure but engagement. I agree.

For me, the centre of Mike’s arguments in favour of CEOs chairing boards is that most CEOs he has encountered seem to think that it would be much easier and more effective to work with the board if they ran it themselves, rather than having a volunteer chair do it for them. 

This argument isn’t new to leaders and managers of volunteers. Most Volunteer Managers (VMs) will have worked with paid staff colleagues to develop volunteer roles and heard them say something along the lines of “but it will be so much quicker and easier if I did it all myself”.  The difference in Mike’s article is that the paid staff concerned is the CEO not the office manager, social worker, team leader or other more junior colleague. The CEO-as-chair argument suggests it’d just be quicker, easier and more effective if the CEO did it themselves.

Extending the argument further would seem to suggest the question, ‘shouldn’t CEOs do all the important roles if they think they can be more effective at them?’ Of course in small agencies where the CEO is the only employee - or may in fact be a ‘senior’ volunteer - then this is perhaps an inevitability. However, in organisations with paid staff teams, the implication would be that CEOs shouldn’t need fellow senior executives, heads of department etc. if they think they could do the job better. 

Of course in practice that’s ridiculous, no CEO in a sizeable organisation would ever seek to do everything themselves. When an organisation gets to a certain size, competent people are hired to lead certain key functions within the organisation such as fundraising, finance, HR, volunteer management (!), service development etc.. CEOs realise that delegating these key responsibilities to someone capable of addressing them is preferable to doing it all themselves.

As a wise person once said:

"Learning to work with volunteers is like learning to ride a bike. At first it is awkward and difficult and it would be quicker to walk but, once you get the hang of it, riding a bike is far superior to walking."

So, let’s return to the issue of chairing the board. Why should the board chair’s position be any different from that of, say, Director of Finance? If the management and leadership of the governance function is as critical to an organisation as effective management and leadership of its finance function, why should the CEO feel they have to step in and run it themselves yet not feel the same need to do that with the finance department?

To answer that, let’s return to a I sentence I used earlier: 

When an organisation gets to a certain size competent people are hired to lead certain key functions within the organisation”. 

The key word here is competent. When paid staff are hired to lead a function, it is a given that they should be competent at that role. Why then is it assumed that someone recruited to be a volunteer board chair would not be competent? Why would the CEOs think they should do that role, not find a competent person to do it on a voluntary basis instead?

In fairness, Mike addresses this issue at the end of his blog when he says:

“By and large, the volunteers selected to be board chairs do not have the core experiences and skills necessary to effectively manage a board of directors. Clearly, training could inform and prepare those who would be, or are, Chairs, which might make the idea of replacing them with the CEO unnecessary.” 

But why is this only a training issue? Why is it not a recruitment issue? Why is the advice not to recruit competent people, people with the right mix of skills and / or experience, to do this important role in the first place? Why is the CEO stepping into this more preferable as a solution?

I think there are two possible reasons (at least).

First, despite what I suggested earlier when I said Mike didn’t pursue the ‘employees = competent, volunteers = incompetent’ argument, there may be some prejudice about volunteers at play here, even if it is subconscious. Why else would the competence of a volunteer board chair be seen as something trainable rather than something selectable, something to be found in the right candidate?

Second, perhaps CEOs see volunteer management as beneath them. Just as many paid staff still view volunteers as nice-to-haves not essentials for an organisation, as the people who do the menial make-work not the core tasks to fulfil the mission, perhaps CEOs (and other senior executives?) see leadership and management of volunteers as similarly menial and non-core to their role.

I’ve long held that some of the issues CEOs want to solve with boards - diversity, effectiveness, challenges finding people to join the board etc. - could be solved with the application of good volunteer management. After all, they are the same issues Volunteer Managers deal with day-in, day-out. But CEOs don’t turn to their VMs. They don’t turn to volunteer management consultants either. They go to governance consultants instead. Yet the problems don’t ever seem to get solved. Interesting.

So is the answer for CEOs to chair the board? In some circumstances the answer may be yes. But I’d much rather see real effort by CEOs to apply the principles and practice of good volunteer leadership and management first before we go down the road of blurring the boundaries of executive / board responsibilities in the non-profit world with little regard to the potential long term implications.

What do you think?