Strong/Weak Combinations—does it have to be that way?

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If the executive director is strong, does the board have to be weak?  And if the board is strong, does the executive director have to be weak?


Many (most?) organizations seem to fit in one category or the other.  In the strong ED-weak board model, the executive director basically runs the organization: making strategy decisions, setting policy, and raising most of the money.  The board basically goes along with the executive director’s ideas, suggestions and initiatives, doesn’t ask a lot of questions, and doesn’t rock the boat.  If the executive director is competent, the board doesn’t have anything to worry about, and in truth maybe not much to do.


In the strong board-weak executive director model, the board develops the strategic direction, creates policy and raises most of the money.  The executive director administers programs and implements board decisions.  If the board knows what it is doing and the executive director is a good administrator, this model can be effective.


Obviously, things can go wrong if the strong party isn’t performing up to the level necessary for its strong position.  A controlling board that doesn’t establish strategy, direct policy, ensure implementation and adequate results, won’t allow the executive director to do it either (and vice versa).  And somebody has to do those things or suffer mission failure.


But does it have to be this way?  I can think of a few (but only a few) examples of a strong board and a strong executive director functioning well together.  Maybe this is the situation that people talk about when they say “the board sets direction and policy, and the staff carries them out” and other ideal models.


What nags is that there are so few of these ideal models out there.  Is that why so much of the literature about boards sounds good but doesn’t actually apply in the real world?


In all cases, the board chair and executive director need to figure out how to work with each other and how to develop strategy, advance policy initiatives, ensure results and raise the money—together.  Executive directors often serve different board chairs during their tenure.  Board officer positions have term limits, generally a couple of years, and executive director positions do not.  Therefore, the strong-weak dynamic may change within limits depending on who is in the board chair seat.


Within limits. It seems unlikely that a new board chair will reverse the balance of power on a strong executive director.  It seems equally unlikely that a new board chair will abdicate the strong board’s position to a weak executive director.


A board can be deliberate about which role it chooses when hiring an executive director.  One hiring committee faced with a decision to hire a candidate who had passion for the mission, a great network within the served population and a lot of promise, but lacked experience that you generally look for in an executive director.  We had a frank discussion about how the board would have to step up for a year or two and help this candidate—should we decide to hire him—to provide leadership for the organization and mentorship for the candidate.  This we decided to do.  The executive director, now seven years in the job, is seasoned and effective.


So, which situation describes yours?  And are you comfortable that the balance of power has found its optimal balance in your organization?

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