Helping the CEO isn’t job one for the board

“Unless we’re certain that what we do is helpful to our president, I won’t waste my time coming back.”  The board member’s comment and the vehemence with which she delivered it, took me by surprise. From where I sat, it had seemed a productive meeting.

stick_figures_carry_text_11402-1The board had worked on its policies. They had reviewed the annual presidential evaluation, provided feedback to first thoughts about a strategic plan, and wrestled with a recommended departure from the organization’s usual financial practices. In between, there was new member orientation, lunch with staff, and committee meetings.

Yet, for all they had accomplished, at least one board member — and others, judging by heads nodding around the table – worried they hadn’t done enough. Or more precisely, enough to be helpful to the president.

Apparently these good folks missed the message that what boards do (or should) is govern. The board isn’t there simply to advise or help the president. It has work of its own. Important work. Unique work that no other group within the organization can (or should) do.

That work is governance. It’s a board’s raison d’être.


Governance, as the authors of Building Effective Boards for Religious Organizations describe it, includes

overseeing, evaluating, and reviewing the relationships among the ideas the organization holds of itself, the way the organization functions, and what it might be called to do and be in light of the vision that gives it light. . . The board translates faith, organizational mission, traditions, beliefs, and values into policies and rules that guide the chief professional officer and senior staff in their activities.

And as for whether the work matters, the proof is in the outcomes. In the words of business consultant Ram Charan, “The board’s output—the quality of the decisions it makes and actions it takes—is the acid test of effective corporate governance.”

The high prize of board work isn’t a happy CEO (although happy is nice). Rather, it is mission fulfilled with economic vitality – now and into the future (which the CEO should find helpful).

For board members itching to advise, approve, and dig deep into programmatic detail, that can be a hard pill to swallow. Like the speaker with whom I began this article, action-oriented types want results for their efforts  – immediate and tangible. Policy making, forecasting, and monitoring don’t make their hearts sing.

But someone needs to do these things and that “someone” is the board.

Unless board members embrace their unique work – better yet, come to enjoy it – all the busyness and helpfulness in the world won’t matter. As Charan reminds, “When boards fail to consider their output, they can easily convince themselves and others that they’re doing well when in fact the essence of their governance is weak.”

If that happens, board members will have wasted their time in coming back.

Talk back: How do you define the work of the board? Where does helpfulness to the CEO fit on your list?

You may also like:

Get governance or get off

When your board comes to a fork in the road . . .

On day one, make it about the board

A five-step cure for boredom in the boardroom





  1. Terry Hoke says:

    Rebekah, Thanks! This reflects the thoughts I’ve been trying to instill into church boards for years. Anyone can sit on a board and advise but it takes a person with passion and desire for the organization (church or otherwise) to be moving in the right direction…and having such passion and desire as to not only ok a direction but to be involved in getting the word out, the vision cast, and providing the work of leadership by being a ‘doing’ member of the organization itself. People in the ranks will always respond better to a leader who show their belief in the mission through more than, if I can say it this way, lip service.

    Thanks again!

    Terry Hoke

  2. Terry, I wish more pastors (and other nonprofit CEOs) shared your enthusiasm for an engaged, purposeful board. In my experience, most prefer a rubber stamp or cheerleader board. Case in point, I recently heard a pastor complain, upon having her plans questioned, that she was being treated like a “hired hand.” As she put it, “I was hired to do a job and now I’m being questioned for doing it.”

    So we end up with “hired hands” and “rubber stamps.” It’s little wonder so many faith-based organizations (including churches) are going nowhere fast.

  3. I’d love to talk about this more. I will buy some of your time if you’ll allow me to do so.

    I, too, fell into this trap and finally couldn’t get out. I resigned my position as pastor at Iron Springs in January and am working out my 4 month notice now. I (man it seems that word “I” is too prevalent here) simply couldn’t lead in the same manner anymore and didn’t feel much chance of success in leading in another direction.

    Rebekah, to explain how my heart hurts for those who are in the same position I placed myself and not offering them help is almost impossible. Would it be possible to meet together and discuss this issue?

    Believing that there is a better way,


    • Hello Terry, There’s no need to buy some of my time. I am available to talk with anyone who is a kindred spirit — and that is you. My schedule is pretty much filled up through the end of April, but early May opens up. May 1, 6, or 7 are open as of now.


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