Board Members: Stop Trying to “Help” Your CEOs

Staying at the strategic level can be difficult for credit union board members. When their “day job” involves getting things done at a tactical level, seeing tactical results is how they know they’re effective and it’s what their evaluated on. The natural impulse is to try to “help” their credit union’s CEO. This often causes conflict and unclear roles.

by Kevin Smith

I know. I know. The headline sounds ridiculous but I’m not going to back down. You’re thinking I’ve lost my marbles or at least my focus with that statement. Why wouldn’t you try tohelp your CEO? Why would you try to make things harder and worse for the credit union and thus the members? Bear with me as I try to explain. I think I have a valid point to make.

Often creditunion board members have or had careers that involve getting “stuff” done, checking off projects, tasks, etc., that are by their very natures more operational, in the nitty gritty of the business they’re in. This is a pretty wide generalization here to be sure, and board members that I’ve met across the country come from a wide set of backgrounds. Sure, they may have some involvement or input on the strategic plan of their department or their organization, but it’s typically not where they spend the bulk of their time.

Here’s the other thing – board members don’t tend to be experts at financial services or at nonprofit board governance. (I know there are some out there. Don’t harass me if you’re the exception. Think broad trends with me, ok?) As a result, many join the board not exactly knowing what their role is but absolutely EAGER to help andprovide value to the organization. So – they fall back on what they know and what is comfortable from their career roles: getting “stuff” done. Thus, the inclination to try to “help” the CEO as much as possible.

Please take note of the fact that I’m trying to be clear that these board members have great intentions, great willingness to serve and a desire to make the credit union better, stronger, etc. These are benevolent approaches … yet ones that don’t ultimately provide benefit.

Here’s where I try to bring it around to the headline. When you’re not clear about how to operate/think at the strategic level. When you want to be of value to the organization you’ve joined. When you feel like it’s progress to get “stuff” done. These are times that board members try to “help” the CEO and get into the weeds.

Here’s what happens when you try to “help”:

  • It complicates things in so many ways.
  • The CEO is the employee of the board of directors as a whole.
  • He or she will generally be loath to ignore and disregard this help, sometimes for fear of disrespecting the “bosses.”
  • This kind of “help” from the board may interfere with the plans and operations that are in place to achieve the set goals, no matter how much you try to have them fit in.
  • “Help” from board members will confuse the chain of command and communication from the CEO down to his or her staff.
  • Staff may get mixed messages about the mission as a result.

When you’re not used to working at the strategic level, it can feel a little loose and ethereal. It can feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But trust me when I say that this is important work. You will get used to it and doing so will provide much more benefit to the credit union.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Learn what it means and how to work at the strategic level.
  • Make an effort to be clear about the strategic role, through reading, training, conferences, workshops, etc.
  • Work hard to make sure your CEO knows you’re open to pushback if you get down too far into operations. And actually BEopen to that pushback. This requires a healthy culture of transparency and communication and an understanding that this is about appropriate and effective roles in the credit union. It’s NOT about the CEO controlling the board with the pushback.
  • Remember: Good governance is a tightrope walk that takes constant vigilance, self-reflection and adjustment.
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