The day has arrived. You have navigated your first agenda-making process and discovered how (dis) organized the group is around minutes and authority over topics for the Board to discuss. You have lamented over the formal, dryness of an agenda that reflects no personality, or rejoiced over the clarity of understanding the Chair has of her role. You have tut-tutted over the last ED’s tendency to send out materials late. You have tried not to insult the Office Coordinator by assuming she would order the snacks for the meeting. The family is making dinner without you and you are sitting in the meeting room, alone, fretting over whether or not the teleconferencing codes will work and if your cellphone will have enough battery if it doesn’t.

The first Board members arrive in a small clutch of chatting comfort. You rise and introduce yourself.

The sad truth is, though, that if you have to introduce yourself to any Board members by the time you go to that first meeting there is already something amiss. No organization should go through the hiring process and have a new ED start without every Board member knowing who they are.

My first Board meeting at one organization began with my discovering that only two people on the Board knew I had been hired – despite the fact that I had been with the organization in a different role for four years. It was a very bad sign and things got worse before they got better. As it turned out, there were serious communication issues in that organization. The Chair was the only person on the Board who knew what was going on, and the burden and stress she was carrying was enormous. And the second item on the agenda – after the group recovered from their surprise (and thankfully for some, their delight) that I had been hired – was the budget. Finances were a mess, something I had only an inkling of because the former ED had been hiding her messes from me, her closest colleague not to mention the Board!

Red flags galore flying within minutes of the meeting.

And then there was the organization in which my first Board meeting started out just fine, but an argument erupted, someone threw a pencil across the room, and two people left crying. Ok, so it was a feminist organization and that kinda stuff can happen (OMG was that org stuck in some grade-six-girl-bullying nightmare of a toxic wasteland), but it shouldn’t, no matter how personal the political may be.

Neither situation was a reassuring experience for a new ED.

The best thing that could happen at your first meeting is this:

  1. You walk in and the Chair is already there, as is another Board member, both of whom are making sure the technology needed is working.
  2. Everyone greets you warmly, by name, and there are warm welcomes all around,
  3. There is a clear agenda that includes consent items and new and interesting discussions that reflect a Board that understands its governance role.
  4. The meeting ends on schedule and the agenda items are completed,
  5. There are all appropriate conversations and activities for a Board,
  6. They give you some room for not being on top of everything because you are new, but thank you for what you are able to contribute, and
  7. You leave feeling truly excited about the mission, the organization and its future.

I’m so sorry to tell you this, but it almost never happens.

Boards simply never get enough training. And the ED role is a bizarre mix of employee and advisor when it comes to the Board. Often the former ED left in less then stellar circumstances, or retired after a billion years in the role (which is often the case here in BC) and in both cases leaves a Board that is a bit insecure, illustrated by overconfidence or inappropriate involvement in operations. They will need you to both reassure them, guide them, but also to treat them like your boss and give them a sense of power.

I hear the private sector has a label for this – Managing Up.

Apparently managing up does not constitute manipulation, though it often feels like it. It is in fact a valid exercise in keeping an organization healthy.  As the ED, you have to manage up because you are the non-profit expert. They need you more then you need them. It’s true. If you care about the mission of the organization it is true and if you don’t care then definitely get out now cause you wont be able to sustain the pressure of the job without some passion for the cause!

My advice? Sit back a bit, don’t talk too much and assess each and every Board member. If one member or more doesn’t say a word, they are the people to call the next day. Why? Because they have been observing the Board and the Board leadership/old guard probably has no idea what those people could be contributing. And its good to make new friends.

If I have learned anything when it comes to managing up – less is more, whether its in emails you right to them, comments at Board meetings, or number of times you share information with them. and in the early days this is very important, despite your desire to make your mark and ensure they understand who you are and what you are about.

The first Board meeting: try to enjoy it as an opportunity to get a clear picture of the journey you will be on for the first year or so. And never let them see your fear. (Seriously! Show them some emotion, but save the fear for your spouse, therapist, jogging pal, and/or coach).

Personally, the first organization I reference dragged me through some hell that first year. (I didn’t mention above that one of the Board members applied for my job, was the runner up, and no one thought to ask her to leave the Board!) But eventually with some knee hugging rocking at home in the comfort of my family, some patience, pain and repetitive conversations, we got to an infinitely better and hugely successful place. In the second case, the pencil-thrower and the main bully were encouraged to move on and things settled down.

Everything takes time!

While you wait, you can use this Board Recruitment Matrix to help you identify and plan for the perfect Board. Good luck!

Welcome to your new normal: Your first Board meeting as Executive Director and the Art of Managing Up