Preventing micromanagement from your board

When it comes to their boards of directors, executive directors typically have one major complaint: micromanagement.  A micromanaging board can drive an executive director crazy. Unfortunately, most executive directors throw their hands up in the air and sigh, “It’s like the weather: I complain about it, but I can’t figure out how to change it!”

The executive director does, in fact, have the power to change the board’s management style and culture. Over the years, RMA has seen many times that when boards get overly active in managing the organization, it’s because a level of trust has broken down and they feel they must micromanage in order to make sure the organization is running properly.

Let’s take a look at the various issues that can cause this breakdown of trust and what you can do to prevent (or repair) it.

1.  The board is not clear what their role is in overseeing and leading the organization. This happens when an organization does not have clear roles/expectations and job descriptions for the board, so the board members simply assume that what they are doing is what they should be doing. Remember that many well-intentioned directors have never seen a high-performing board in action.

2.  The board has no clear policies about separating the rules of what is appropriate  for the staff versus the board. The board must pass policies that spell out succinctly what is and what is not appropriate. This likely relates to communications, meeting protocols, and sharing information. Everyone must then follow these rules.

3.  “Doing” is a natural instinct for most people. Most of us are raised to wash the  dishes, clean up the house, and fix a light bulb. We are not taught to “lead” but rather to “do.” The “doing” comes naturally. So when we sit on boards of directors and we think  we have a better way to do the financial accounting, we tend “do it.” When we think we can handle a personnel issue better we jump in. The problem is that in doing these things, we are overstepping our boundaries and becoming micromanagers.

4.  We recruit board members with specific skills and tasks. When we ask a lawyer to join our board, we want them for their legal expertise, or an accountant for their financial  wizardry, or a public relations person for their access to the media. We are asking them to serve a function, rather than just give “advice and consent.” So when they come on board and see the organization doing a second-rate job, they are quick to jump in and  say, “I can do it better.”

5. The root cause of micromanagement is often fear of failing or doing it wrong. If we don’t do the task, we fear it won’t get done and we will fail. People want to succeed and when a board sees things going in the wrong direction, the tendency is to jump in and  manage the situation.

6. In times of crisis or if you have a history of crisis, a board will tend to become  overly involved in running the organization. We see this with organizations where an   executive director has recently quit, or when the organization has suffered a public embarrassment or the loss of a major grant. In times like these, the board will think they have to “rescue” the organization.

7.  The organization needs to focus on results and success. A great way to turn around the micromanaging situation is to show the board the organization’s successes, results,  and competence. Make sure that at every board meeting there is a percentage of the agenda devoted to the mission accomplishments of the organization.

8. Involve the executive director in his/her yearly evaluation and ask them for feedback  on the extent and degree of micromanagement they feel is going on in the organization. Changing this situation must involve the people most directly involved: the executive director and the board members.

9. Develop a chart that clearly delineates the staff responsibilities versus board roles. Board members and the executive director will check off exactly who is  responsible for what tasks.

10. Recruit board members to be trustees rather than free labor. Organizations get into problems when they recruit lawyers, accountants, and public relations people to provide free labor. This inevitably results in micromanagement where the board members start to do what the staff should be doing. Recruit board members to offer guidance and leadership in these areas–and recruit other volunteers or hire a staff person to actually do the work.

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