Eliminate Fuzziness Between Board and Staff Roles

Keep your leaders on track with a one-page Prime Responsibility Chart.

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

The difference between micromanaging and
appropriate questioning is not always a bright line.
What really defines micromanaging is not whether
a board member is digging into details.
It’s really a question of which details and for what purpose.[1]

Ram Charan
 

 

Picture this. In the middle of a routine board meeting, the amiable board chair had reached his limit. Two board members were aggressively and inappropriately arguing (actually, they were shouting) over a very inconsequential issue—not even an agenda topic.

Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Shockingly, the board chair gaveled the boisterous board members into an embarrassing state of silence. The room went deathly quiet and this Christ-centered board (at least the core values said the board aspired to be “Christ-centered”) faced a common boardroom dilemma: the fuzziness between board and staff roles.

These two outspoken board members profoundly (profoundly!) disagreed on whether the topic was a board issue or a staff issue.

Sound familiar? In our experience, these mini-battles (and major wars) are fought routinely in boardrooms worldwide. Here are just a few examples:

  • A fundraising letter aggressively requests an immediate response at a time when the ministry has 12 months of cash reserves in the bank. Staff issue or board issue?
  • The ministry has used a significant portion of their restricted net assets for operating expenses. Staff issue or board issue?
  • A board member suggests that annual updates of the staff handbook should be reviewed by the full board. Staff issue or board issue?
  • While the board annually evaluates the CEO’s performance, apparently the CEO does not conduct formal performance reviews of her direct reports. Staff issue or board issue?
  • A vice president appears to be overly generous in granting bonuses, days off, and other perks to hard-working people in his department. Other VPs are complaining to the CEO and the board. Staff issue or board issue?

We could go on and on—but you get the idea. You likely have more examples from recent board meetings, and you would not be alone. ECFA research found that the biggest contrast between effective and ineffective boards is the issue of role clarity. In a survey of ECFA board members, we asked if they agreed that “our board understands its roles and responsibilities.” Among effective boards, 93 percent did. Among ineffective boards, only 44 percent did. That’s a 49 percent difference![2]

So what’s the role of the board?

  • Ministering? Listening, encouraging, praying with department heads?
  • Monitoring? Ensuring that every department has goals, reports, and results?
  • Meddling? Jumping in with new ideas, fixing problems, addressing personnel issues?
  • Micro-managing? In the weeds, obsessing over details, mandating lengthy reports?

Our recommendation is that most boards should relate to one employee: the CEO. When decisions involve the CEO with his or her direct reports, those should be delegated to the CEO, but the CEO should not violate any board-approved policies. There are many tools that will help clarify these relationships, such as a Board Policies Manual (see “Do Unwritten Board Policies Really Exist,” Lesson 4 in Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom[3]).

Try this tool: the Prime Responsibility Chart (PRC). The PRC will help you eliminate fuzziness between board and staff roles. The PRC is short—just one page. Roles and responsibilities are crystal clear. Based on your ministry’s governance model, you may have a unique approach to some functions, but you can customize the PRC to meet your needs.

The chart is simple and straightforward and can be changed at any time—literally at any or every meeting. Growth (or decline) in your organization or a department will likely impact reporting relationships, so this tool is not static—it’s meant to be reviewed frequently. When the PRC is edited by board action, just make the change and update the chart with “Version 4.0” and the current date, and then email the revised PRC to board members and department heads within 24 hours. Also, have copies available for reference at every board meeting.

The most important principle: only one person has “Prime Responsibility” (P). This one-page chart is an excellent way to clarify board and staff roles.

We close with this reminder: a PRC will not solve all of your staff/board issues. Pray, discern, and inspire your board to a high-level of courtesy and thoughtful discussion. We appreciate Ram Charan’s insightful chapter, “How Do We Stop From Micromanaging?” in his book, Owning Up: The 14 Questions Every Board Member Needs to Ask. He writes:

“Asking questions of an operating nature is not in itself micromanaging, as long as the questions lead to insights about issues like strategy, performance, major investment decisions, key personnel, the choice of goals, or risk assessment.”[4]

And did we mention how our CEO friend resolved the Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! drama at future board meetings?

“No problem,” our colleague told us. “Amazingly, the chairman’s gavel mysteriously disappeared—and was never seen again.”

 

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Clarify board and staff roles with the one-page
Prime Responsibility Chart. The PRC is a helpful tool
to eliminate current and future fuzziness
on roles and responsibilities.

 

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Clarify: Is your board/CEO/staff organizational chart crystal clear? Verify that each staff member only has one direct supervisor.

  2. Create: Customize Version 3.0 of the Prime Responsibility Chart and present it at your next board meeting for both board and staff feedback. Then edit and produce Version 4.0.[6]

  3. Congratulate: At the end of any lengthy discussion at a board meeting, affirm and congratulate (maybe with a Chick-fil-A card) the first board member who observes: “This is taking way too long to decide. Is it because we need to add or edit a line on our Prime Responsibility Chart?”
     

 

Prayer

Lord, enable our board to focus on governance agenda items,
and to stay out of the weeds—
so our board meetings don’t become staff meetings. Amen
 

 

 

[1] Ram Charan, Owning Up: The 14 Questions Every Board Member Needs to Ask (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 164.

[2] Warren Bird, Unleashing Your Board’s Potential: Comprehensive Report from ECFA’s Nonprofit Governance Survey (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2019), 21.

[3] Dan Busby and John Pearson, Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: 40 Insights for Better Board Meetings, 2nd Ed. (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2018), 16–22. See also Dan Busby and John Pearson, ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance: Time Saving Solutions for Your Board (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2019), 171-74. This book provides access to the Board Policies Manual template.

[4] Ram Charan, Owning Up: The 14 Questions Every Board Member Needs to Ask (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 165.

[5] The “Prime Responsibility Chart” is adapted from Chapter 18, “The Operations Buckets,” by John Pearson, Mastering the Management Buckets (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), 232. An executive at The Boeing Company, who was also a board member at SAMBICA in Bellevue, WA, adapted the Boeing template for use by the camp’s board.

[6] Access the Prime Responsibility Chart (PRC) by purchasing ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance by Busby and Pearson.

 

From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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