6 Key Practices for Every Board

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It’s easy to lose accountability at the top.

In most churches, nonprofits, and companies, a pastor or executive director or CEO or president heads up the operations. The staff report to him.

In many of those organizations, the leader also influences the board—he or she reports on how things are going, offers plans for the future, and even recommends new board members.

Without careful attention, a leader can begin to operate without meaningful accountability. If he loses sight of the organization’s goals, nobody redirects him. If her marriage falters, no one knows about it. Without a direct line from staff to board, a CEO’s incompetence or inappropriate behavior with those under him can continue indefinitely.

Without a direct line from staff to board, a CEO’s incompetence or inappropriate behavior with those under him can continue indefinitely.

TGC asked a longtime senior pastor, a chair of a seminary board, and a college president—some of the most accomplished in their fields—how they think biblically about authority, how they keep leaders accountable, and what to do if things go sideways.

1. Hire a leader who wants accountability.

“Unless the CEO/senior pastor/executive director wants to be held accountable, it’s basically impossible,” said Sandy Willson, who spent 22 years as the senior pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis. “He’s the one who controls information. He has the microphone all the time. If he doesn’t cede power to those around him, it’s probably never going to happen.”

When Willson came to Second Presbyterian, he gave the church leaders authority to fire him. When Gordon Smith, author of Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, became president at Ambrose University, he asked that every board meeting include an “in camera” session—where he leaves the room—even if for less than an hour.

“Things that need to be said don’t get said because I’m in the room,” he said. “Those sessions can be unsettling because I know who they’re talking about. But if you don’t want to be talked about, don’t go into executive leadership.”

Living under authority is a spiritual discipline.

Living under authority is a spiritual discipline, Smith said. “Even the apostle Paul—who could not have been more convinced that he was supposed to preach the gospel to the Gentiles—still went to the Jewish council in the book of Acts. He said, ‘Here’s what’s happening,’ and then deferred to them. Even Peter, when he went to Cornelius, came back to Jerusalem and accounted for his actions. He didn’t say, ‘Excuse me, who do you think you are? Jesus is building his church on me.’ He deferred to them.”

Working under authority “is deeply part of the fabric of New Testament shared life,” Smith said. That’s no less true today.

2. Create accountability that strengthens a leader’s authority.

In January, Smith noticed that one of his vice presidents wasn’t operating effectively. He told his board chair, with whom he meets regularly, about his doubts.

“How will you decide what to do?” Ken Stankievech asked him.

“I’ll monitor it over the next month and then make a decision,” Smith promised. And he did. He decided that the person wasn’t a good fit for the job. And then he did nothing, because letting someone go is “awkward and uncomfortable and the worst.”

A month later, Stankievech asked Smith about it: “Is he effective?”

“No,” Smith said.

“What are you going to do about it?” Stankievech pressed.

In April, Smith let the person go.

“Ken held me accountable to do what I needed to be done but was avoiding,” he said.

Boards can also catch what a leader misses—“We all have blind spots,” Smith said—and can lend wise advice from their areas of expertise. But perhaps the biggest way accountability lends authority is the most counterintuitive: by keeping a close eye on the leader.

3. Regularly ask intimate/hard questions.

At Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), chancellor Ligon Duncan meets with his board twice a year and his executive committee monthly. On top of that, he meets with a small group of three board members almost every month.

They ask about the pressures he’s experiencing inside the institution and in his personal life. They ask about his marriage and children. They ask about the weight of his schedule. They pray for him. They counsel him.

Perhaps the biggest way accountability lends authority is the most counterintuitive: by keeping a close eye on the leader.

Smith also has a four-person executive committee—“More than that is too many. How would they even do that?”—but they meet once a year. He intentionally provides a full update on his spiritual practices and the rhythms of his life—including sabbath rest. In monthly meetings with his board chair, nothing is off limits, including the quality of his marriage. (“The potential damage to this organization is so high if my wife and I are not in a good place,” Smith said. “My marriage is a public issue.”)

If a board doesn’t ask those questions directly, it should make sure someone is asking them, Willson said. They can find out, “Who are your close friends? How often do you get together? Is there someone to ask you if you’re viewing porn or having marital issues? What will your friend do if you’re in trouble morally or spiritually?”

What would your staff do?

4. Keep communication open between the staff and the board.

Every few years, Second Presbyterian did a “360 review” of Willson, which means they asked three or four of his staff how he was doing.

“You want to do that collaboratively with the CEO,” said Willson, who provided names of those who worked closely with him and urged them to be candid. “That way you don’t go behind his back.”

At Ambrose, when board members come twice a year for their meetings, they attend “listening posts” set up around campus.

“I need to not be defensive, because I know people are going to express concerns,” he said. “But I want my board to be excited about the students. I want them to believe in this faculty. I want them to feel the force of leadership in my provost and have high confidence in my CFO. That doesn’t happen if they don’t talk to them.”

‘The potential damage to this organization is so high if my wife and I are not in a good place,’ Smith said. ‘My marriage is a public issue.’

 

His board members are careful not to ask, “What don’t you like about this place?” but instead, “What’s encouraging you?” and “What’s furrowing your brow?”

If there are concerns about Smith, they’ll come up at those sessions.

Board members have to be trained to receive those, Willson said. They need to ask if the complaint-bringer has talked to his or her supervisor. If the problem is more serious, perhaps it needs to go to human resources. Or if it’s more serious yet, perhaps the board needs to discuss it with the president.

“The job [of board members] is not to solve the problem, but to get it into the right courtroom,” Willson said.

5. Board members need to be held accountable also.

Every RTS board member is either an elder or deacon in his local church.

“I’ve been on boards of nonprofits where most of the members weren’t under the authority of the church,” Ridgway said. “That was always an issue. Where’s their accountability?”

But at Second Presbyterian, the session members were the local-church authority.

“The board has to do the work,” Willson said. “They have to come to meetings. They have to participate. If they don’t, they have to go. How can you fire a CEO if you can’t fire yourself?”

Board members should honestly evaluate themselves and each other once a year, he said. (Over the years, Second Presbyterian has let some elders go.) “We’re all dying to the mission.”

How can you fire a CEO if you can’t fire yourself?

While longevity can sometimes work against accountability—think “good ol’ boy” networks—it can also work for it.

At RTS, board members sign on for six-year terms but are expected to serve for life. (The average tenure is more than 20 years.) That expected longevity deters the board from quick band-aids and prompts members to think of long-term solutions that are better for the institution, Ridgway said. “Time is critical to building unity and trust.”

“We’ve worked together for so long that we can be truthful and plain-spoken without being offensive,” he said. “And there’s such a commitment to the mission that if someone is the minority in a vote, we can let it go because of the unity and the fellowship, and because everyone has the same interests at heart.”

That deep unity is Trinitarian. “We don’t all think alike or have the same perspectives,” Ridgway said. “We disagree. We have expertise in different areas. But we’re all of one mind [regarding the direction of RTS].”

6. Nurture a healthy relationship between leader and board chair.

“I pray a lot for my wife and my kids and my grandkids and my pastor,” Ridgway said. “But I pray as much for Ligon Duncan as anyone.”

He meets Duncan every month for breakfast. “I don’t want to be a doting chairman, so I give him space,” Ridgway said. “But he’s the CEO. We have his back.”

Leading an organization effectively is impossible without a good working relationship between the CEO and the board chair, Smith said. “I have to be confident he can do his job—or I can’t do mine.”

Recently, a faculty member told Smith he can relax, knowing that he and Stankievech have a healthy relationship.

That’s only true “if the board chair doesn’t try to be the president, and if the president genuinely wants to be accountable,” Smith said. In other words, the board chair isn’t running everything with the president as a yes-man; neither is the president making every decision with the board chair offering only uncritical support.

Order Out of Chaos

“So many times when executive leaders go sideways, it’s because power has gone to their heads,” Smith said. “And then you have boards with egg on their face, saying, ‘We never asked the hard questions.’”

Because it’s “almost impossible” to add accountability structures to a current situation, creating guidelines happens best during times of transition, such as when a new leader is hired, he said.

Remember that “everyone is ‘fearfully and wonderfully’ made differently,” Ridgway said. “We all bring our own warts and family systems and issues to the table, so the dynamic is always unique between a board and a CEO.”

Two of the best things a board can do is to be interested and engaged in the work, and to ensure a strong accountability process.

The procedures “aren’t set up to limit your capacity to lead, but to assure your effectiveness as a leader,” Smith said. “It’s a spiritual practice for the health of the organization. It’s part of what it means to be in community.”

Defective governance “hurts the body,” Willson said. “Let’s serve these people well. If you are out of order and have chaos, then they are in chaos.”

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