The situation

A troika of the Board chairman, the executive director, and a talented senior staff member act as an executive committee, making critical decisions without Board oversight.  Contact among the three is frequent, personal, and, for the most part, effective, especially when the good times roll.  Funding comes in, the project grows, and brilliant insight by the staff member propels the organization to new heights. 

The Board made little effort to challenge the decisions of the dynamic chairman.  But the chairman viewed opportunities and problems only through the filter of his executive director and that talented staff member.  The tail wags the dog: the Board responds to the staff rather than initiating planning and evaluation or critically assessing staff suggestions.  However, the staff became too busy dealing with the turmoil of day-to-day operations. It didn’t have time to “focus on the future.”

The Board meets only four times per year, not often enough to develop strategic plans, serve as watchdog, or evaluate the program.  Only one committee—finance—is active.  At its quarterly meetings, the Board reviewed the budget, made what suggestions it could, and smiled in agreement with the chairman.  Most of the Board members came from the chairman’s circle: business people with little experience in education, the mission of the agency.

“It was subtle. [The Board members] were all intelligent people but thought, ‘What do we know?’ They abdicated to the staff members,” one observer noted. “The Board didn’t realize the problem.”

The circumstances sour

A partnership opportunity arose that allowed the organization to double in size, to deliver its program to twice as many students.  The key staff member was eager to take on the challenge.  He and the executive director approved the undertaking on their own, and then convinced the chairman to take the plunge.  A conference call was made to some of the Board members after the fact but the idea wasn’t vetted by any committee, its consequences not thought through, the details of the partnership not scrutinized.

And consequences there were. The offer came with unforeseen strings that eventually required what can only be described as an upheaval in program delivery.  To a new partnership and doubled client base, add the loss of the chairman and the executive director, who resigned for personal reasons. The troika was, in effect, dissolved just as a major problem — the strings attached to that hasty partnership — loomed. 

Refreshing outcomes

A conjunction of events that could have been a death-knell for the organization instead became a breath of new life.

The new executive director and the new Board chairmen created an executive committee of the Board, increased the number of Board members and implemented a committee structure on the Board. Large, complex issues cannot be addressed by a Board of directors at quarterly meetings, the executive director pointed out.  At those meetings, Boards focus on an agenda covering many issues, not on individual issues. The committee structure allowed members of the Board to focus on an issue for as many meetings as it takes to understand and resolve it.  They then presented information and well-researched recommendations to the Board for approval.

The new Board is more diverse; its members have varied skills and backgrounds. Board committees now plan strategy, evaluate the program and develop marketing programs. “You need different capabilities in order to dive deep,” the executive director says. “You divide issues to create an opportunity for inquiry and then you come together for decisions.”

The new Board structure was barely in place when the consequences of the well-meant but unanalyzed decision of the troika became apparent. The executive committee hammered out its response and, with the approval of the Board, completely transformed the operation of the agency, dissolved the ill-advised partnership and developed a delivery system that allowed even more students to benefit.

The path of a recently proposed partnership at the agency clearly illustrates the change. Unlike the prior well-intentioned but largely unanalyzed decision, this partnership proposal was vetted by a critical, questioning executive committee during the course of many meetings.  Consequences were explored, contract details reviewed from several points of view, and the final contract was be approved by the full Board.

The committee structure allows the agency to respond quickly to new situations in the market, the chairman says, and gives it the flexibility to change as opportunities and needs appear.  As a result, the founders’ vision and the agency’s purpose– improved quality of education for inner city students — are being realized for an ever increasing population.