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Recruiting the Most Senior Staff member when “the boss” is the board

Monday, August 12, 2013
Boards & Governance

Recruitment & orientation of the most senior staff person (Standard A3) is a foundational piece of business for most organizations.  In this case, the board is the boss and it’s a process to align three or more heads to act as one in a productive and healthy relationship with the most senior staff person.

Many of you have heard of the Standards Program at Imagine Canada, others possibly not.  The program is first and foremost a capacity building program open to all to view and use the Standards (some choose to go through an accreditation process).  Via Imagine Canada’s blog we are focusing on a few  individual Standards that can bring about a number of questions. For this topic we draw on some expert advice in interview with Don McCreesh, Imagine Canada’s former board chair and a key initiator of the Standards Program. Don’s breadth of knowledge comes from his more than 30 years’ experience as a business executive in senior human resources roles, and as a board member for numerous charities and nonprofits.  You can also find numerous resources on this topic (in English and French) on SectorSource.ca under Standard A3 in the Standards Resources section.

With great power comes great responsibility

While speaking with Don about the board’s work with the most senior staff person, it struck us that this relationship is the key to effective board-staff engagement. The most senior staff person should be the only staff member who reports to the board. The rest of the employees in an organization should report to the most senior staff person. For the purposes of this column, we’ll call the most senior staff person the Executive Director, or ED.

The ED is responsible for running the organization’s operations; generally board members would not intervene in these day-to-day activities. The responsibilities of an ED are different that the responsibilities of board members. Don comments that “A way to create positive relationships is to ensure roles are very clear between board and the ED; having clear board mandate/Terms of Reference and clear ED mandate/Terms of reference – ensures accountability.”  See the Sector Source Board Terms of Reference (Standard A17)  for resources about this topic.

    Create trust and open dialogue between the board and the ED.”

Recruiting & Orientation:  Finders and keepers

Essentially any human resources planning involves three major steps:

  •     recruitment;
  •     orientation & development; and
  •     succession planning.

Recruiting: The Hiring Committee

“The Hiring committee should see it’s job as not done until the new person has his/her first successful performance review.”   I was struck by Don’s comment indicating that boards should allocate a time period of one year for hiring someone as important as an ED. The job of the hiring committee is to understand the skills and experience needed, evaluate any major changes in the organization and consider the strategic vision over the next few years.

“One of key roles of the board is to develop a strategy – skills, competencies, success factors and develop a recruitment strategy (through a consultant, internet etc.)”  

And if we’re not getting the right applicants? “The board needs to examine why that is. Is it reputation? Compensation? Critical self-analysis is needed.”  

For more resources on recruiting for this position, see the resources available on Sector Source under Staff Involvement – Policies and Practices. Most notably the guide book Hiring the Right Executive Director for your Organization: One size does not fit all. – Board Development Program Alberta and the HR Council’s HR Toolkit’s “Getting the Right People: Job Descriptions” webpage.

Orientation and Development: Step by Step

A sink-or-swim metaphor is a common phrase in today’s workplace, but throwing out a life ring might save the organization a huge amount of risk. Don tells us is the best way to ensure that the new ED has a successful start is to “…decide what is the plan for the first 30/60/90 days.” The hiring committee needs strategize for success by showing the new hire business plans, financial plans, and examples of past issues. This includes meetings with stakeholders, introductions to funders and the organization’s staff and management team. In this regard, board members act as mentors to the new ED by drawing on their individual areas of expertise and experience. Establish check-in sessions with the board chair or hiring committee on the matter of orientation. “Eventually the board moves from proactive to reactive mode and it needs to be ready to assist and provide support. If organizations do not invest in the orientation, it will put the organization at risk,” cautions Don.

The board should be continually involved in discussions right from the day that the ED is appointed, playing out ‘what if’ scenarios. This can include establishing which back up plans are needed. They should involve the ED in the conversation since it is his/her job to manage the organization. This will mitigate risks and cultivate an open atmosphere.”

Succession Planning: What do We do When…

The reasons for a departure could be highly varied, as can the actions taken as a result of that departure. We asked Don about the events that can lead up to vacancies of the ED position, and how to plan and prepare for unforeseen circumstances.

The ED resigns -  “This is likely the best case scenario from both a planning and a morale perspective. The individual has indicated they will be moving on to another job, retiring or moving to another part of the country.”

“The board should be continually involved in discussions right from the day that the ED is appointed, playing out ‘what if’ scenarios. This can include establishing which back up plans are needed. They should involve the ED in the conversation since it is his/her job to manage the organization. This will mitigate risks and cultivate an open atmosphere.”

The ED is involved in a crisis – Boards need a general risk management and crisis plan in order to be nimble in a crisis involving the ED. Don suggests “if succession planning has been completed, the board should know the answer to ‘who could fill in on Monday morning for the ED?’ A plan is needed long before, if ever, it happens”.

It is possible for a suitably qualified board member to assume the role of ED in the event that he/she leaves the organization suddenly. Typically one would choose a board member who has the skills to fulfill this role.

Board action - We wanted to understand how does the board plan and decide to take action to remove a senior staff person such as the ED. It’s not easy, as Don points out:

“It should not be a surprise if it [the ED’s departure] is performance related. It is important for the board to address the issue, in-camera and confidentially. There might be performance issues, there might be need for a strategic change and so the board decides to make a tough decision,”  says Don.

An important note – troubling performance issues should be addressed with the ED over a longer term, with guidance provided along the way. Don emphasized that it is a much greater risk to continue on with someone who is not delivering on the mission of the organization than to try to avoid regular check-ins. It’s another story if the ED was found to be involved in fraudulent or illegal activity; that would require immediate, punitive action from the board of directors, and the organization’s crisis plan would be implemented.

Some final takeaways:

To mitigate risk of being in the lurch without an operational leader, Don suggests:

    “Create trust and open dialogue between the board and the ED.”
    “The board should be having the ‘what if’ conversation on a regular basis.”
    “The departure of the most senior individual is not necessarily a negative thing.”

Visit sectorsource.ca to find more information about Board Policies and Planning, Staff Management, or to search for other helpful information.

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