Who is your boss?  For many of us, the answer is straightforward.  Maybe it’s the CEO or COO of your company; maybe it’s the supervisor in your division, or maybe you’re your own boss.  For a nonprofit Executive Director or CEO, the answer to that question is a little more complicated.  For that person, an entire board of directors is their boss, and it is up to that board to ensure that the Executive Director has the tools needed to successfully lead and manage the organization.

Of all the roles and responsibilities of a board, hiring and reviewing the Executive Director may be the most important role that the board plays.  After all, this is the person that will lead the organization.  For most organizations, a good executive director is critical to fulfilling the organization’s mission.

To have a successful senior executive, there are several steps that the board needs to take.  First, before hiring a new CEO or Executive Director, the entire board needs to come to agreement on not only the position’s job description, but also what their expectations are for the role.  Do they expect the person to be on-call at all times? Does that individual need to be upbeat and team oriented? Do they need to have a strong sense of community?  What are the qualities the board is seeking that do not show up in a traditional job description?  Once these qualities are agreed upon, ensure that the hiring process helps the board look for these things in addition to what is articulated on the job description.

Once a person is hired into the role, it is critical that the board articulate clearly what they expect from the Executive and what the goals are that they expect the organization to meet.  It is NOT the role of the board to micromanage or to lead the staff; however, setting expectations and goals give the Executive an understanding of what they need to accomplish and what they will be evaluated on.

Once the Executive is in place, it is now the job of the board to ensure that the Executive receives regular feedback and reviews based on established expectations and goals.  Too many times, something goes wrong and then the board decides that they need to conduct a review of the Executive.  However, the board never took the time to articulate its expectations, so the resulting review process is arbitrary and difficult for all involved.

The review process does not have to occur annually, but many boards like to conduct a formal review on an annual basis — one that gathers information from the full board and possibly staff and other stakeholders regarding the Executive’s performance as it relates to expectations and goals.  This gives the board and the Executive a more complete understanding of performance and doesn’t depend solely on what the board sees at meetings.  However, the board can also use a more informal process that utilizes the board chair or a personnel committee to meet with the Executive on a regular basis to review performance and goals and help with problem solving.  Again, the role of the board is to ensure the Executive is meeting goals and understands expectations and priorities, not to manage the organization.

Finally, if an Executive Director is not meeting the expectations and not meeting the goals of the organization, it is up to the board to put the best interest of the organization first.  This might mean firing an Executive or working through a performance plan.  Many of us serve in this role in our own organizations, but find being a volunteer board member forced to fire an Executive particularly challenging.  The board needs to make sure they have all their ducks in a row and should keep in mind their fiduciary responsibility to the organization.

Ideally, if the board has spent the time to identify needs, set goals, set expectations and communicate them on a regular basis, the organization will have the successful Executive that it needs to meet its mission.