High-Impact Boards: Executive Directors Share Their Secrets

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We recently spoke with several executive directors that we admire for their remarkable boards. We wanted to know how they found themselves in this exceptional position. In talking with them, several mentioned the usual suspects, like ensuring a balance of wealth, wisdom, and work. But they also spoke to a few unique characteristics that set their boards apart and allow them to thrive.

Find the right board chair

These executive directors agreed that the right board chair is critical.  As Ariel Zwang, CEO of Safe Horizon, said, the board chair is key to getting things done: “Your board chair has to be someone whose good opinion others really value. That sounds simple, but there’s a lot there. The Chair’s leadership style has to motivate others for one reason or another.”

Rich Berlin, Executive Director of Dream (formerly Harlem RBI), also noted that a board chair should have a collaborative relationship with the organization’s leader: “I need a board chair that will think hard with me. We can disagree behind closed doors, but when we emerge, we must have one vision that we can sell together.”

Don’t have a program committee

It’s not uncommon for board members to want to get into the weeds of an organization’s programs. But these executive directors were adamantly opposed to this. “I’ve never been at an organization that has a great program committee,” said Jilly Stephens, Executive Director of City Harvest. “Board members shouldn’t be setting program direction.”

Rich Berlin agreed, saying “nobody knows more about the program than our staff.” Instead, he teams up each board member with a member of his management team. This allows them to discuss program details in a one-on-one setting while simultaneously securing the board member’s buy-in. He also gathers a group of his board members to discuss program strategy, keeping at a high level and thinking for the longer term.

Create board report cards

Clients often wonder how to ensure that all board members carry their weight. They ask how to best remove those who fail to contribute in dollars or time. Executive directors we spoke with had a solution: create an Annual Board Report Card.

Ariel Zwang and Rich Berlin give each of their board members a report that contains details such as the number of meetings attended and total dollars and in-kind contributions, and compares these data to the board average.

This has two advantages. First, it creates a culture of accountability and friendly competition. “No one wants to be out-performed,” Berlin said. “And when they do something, they’ll ask, ‘That’s going on my report card, right?’” It also creates a painless process for removing under performers. “Most people get it on their own,” Zwang said. “They will move themselves off the board after several years of under performance.”

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Without doubt, these characteristics alone do not lead to outstanding boards. And, yet, it is notable that these three leaders independently identified their board chair, the decision to have no program committees, and/or the use of board reports as key factors to their board’s success. Moreover, these are actionable suggestions, ones that any Board can use to move along the path from good to great.