Monday, June 27, 2016

"Been On The Job Too Long"?

The title of this post comes from the refrain in the ballad “Duncan and Brady” about a late 19th century murder in St. Louis. “Folkies” among you may recall the Dave Van Ronk version in the 1960’s, as well as those performed by many other artists and bands over the years.

“Been on the job too long” here raises the tricky question of length of tenure of leadership in nonprofits, both staff and board. When does a leader know it’s time to move on? And, if the leader doesn’t have that level of self-awareness or self-assessment, who makes that determination?

A leader’s self determination to move on may come from several realizations. One might be that the internal fire, needed to lead mission-driven organizations, is being banked, by time and perhaps tiredness. The perpetual pressure to raise money, satisfy diverse constituencies and, at the helm, to steady the boat, may have taken its toll. This state of mind may have  eroded inventiveness and led to falling back on past solutions or ignoring new ideas from others. This can result in “bunker” mentality. You raise the periscope now and then to survey the landscape, but otherwise lower it and plod on. 

Now if the leader doesn’t see that the time may have come, others might and that is where trouble can start. The way around such disconnect is the regular performance evaluation. If the review is open, mutual and based on pre-established criteria,  surprises can be averted and wrong turns righted. Well-run nonprofits have built-in evaluation systems, for all staff.
But what about the board? As discussed here before, a board governance committee ideally would have designed a way to assess board performance as a whole, reviewing attendance, participation and engagement in the organization’s mission. It is more difficult to determine any individual performance, unless a board member stands out by, for instance, being disruptive in meetings or routinely absent. A job description for board members is critical to form the baseline for evaluation.
And what about the board chair? Who assesses his or her performance? Who decides if the incumbent has been on the job too long? Presumably the position selection process, perhaps with a person rising through the ranks by exceptional service to the organization, along with a term limit and an election process, will provide a good framework for any future transition.  Absent that situation, what if a chair shows no sign of moving on and exhibits autocratic behavior and a management style that is having an adverse effect on the institution?
Short of a bloodless coup d’etat,  which board members,  genetically shy of controversy , are unlikely to undertake, what can be done? A further complication is if the board chair is a major contributor or fund-raiser .
The best answer is to recruit a qualified person as a replacement  with equal or even more financial prowess. I served a board some years ago where a wealthy board member, who was not the chair but acted as if he were, made management demands of the board that it resisted. He threatened to revoke a seven figure trust he had established with the organization as beneficiary (hint: it was established as “revocable”) unless the board acquiesced. Finally at a point  when the board declined once again, another board member stepped up and said he would make up whatever funds were lost.  The demanding board member resigned, revoked the trust and good to his word, the champion provided what was lost and much more over some years.  It helps that such acts of bravery are backed up, as in the military, by reserves.
As for CEOs or other key staff, the decision for moving on, if not voluntary, is tough. Most in the nonprofit world will agree that personnel issues are the thorniest in management. After all, it is PERSONnel , and in nonprofits where employees’ rewards are just partly pecuniary,  volunteer board members serve without pay and there is chronic under-staffing, relationships with people are critical to success.
Here is a scenario that spells trouble.  There is disgruntlement about a CEO’s performance, there is little communication between the employee and those who are unhappy , especially about the reasons for the unhappiness. Pressure starts to build and an action is taken by either party that leads to a bitter parting of the ways, leading to the institutional well being  poisoned. 
With early and open discussion among the key parties, a leave-taking, if it is necessary  (sometimes negotiation can resolve that) can be made relatively painless for all concerned. All should be attuned to the possibility of someone being on the job too long – and develop an early warning system to avoid a situation best put in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” 

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