Fought The Board and The Board Won

With Drew McManus’ post about Scorched Earth Governance today, I thought I would share my own tale of overbearing boards. My story isn’t as extreme as anything Drew mentioned but it does illustrate boards micromanaging, perhaps to the detriment of the organization. I haven’t told this story before out of respect for the Executive Director who had to continue working with the board. About three weeks ago, I noticed the ED position was being advertised and upon further checking discovered the ED had moved on to fresher fields.

When I write that decisions were made “perhaps to the detriment of the organization,” it is because this involves a job for which I was interviewing. Obviously I can’t make an objective judgment about whether the person who got the job was better for the position. This isn’t a disgruntled story about how poorly I was treated. It was only because the experience was so strange that I felt the need to record notes on it. I actually felt highly complimented and valued by the whole situation. It is the Executive Director who was probably came away with the worst of it.

A number of years back I had interviewed for a General Director position at an arts center. The position required that I handle a lot of the financial aspects of the center. It also required that I have a great deal of involvement in operations of an annual festival and troubleshoot problems that arose with classes and artist residencies. I would be the first person called in the middle of the night.

After the interview, I pretty much felt that I had won over the staff but wasn’t sure about the Executive Director or the Board. Eventually, I got a call from the Executive Director that said exactly that. Then he added that while he had gone into the interview looking for someone different, as he reviewed my application, read my blog and spoke to my references, he realized he had initially been looking for someone like himself when I was clearly the only candidate suited for the job.

So I was elated that my interview, my references and best of all, my blog had come together to make such a strong case for me –and that the guy I am going to be working for is thoughtful enough to examine and reevaluate his expectations.

As the Executive Director continued, the complicating factor emerged. The board wanted someone who was more of an accountant and had reservations about me. He called me so he could go into a meeting the next day with responses to their concerns and fight for me as top candidate. He felt that the board members who had called my references were twisting what the references said around to make unwarranted assumptions about me. They told him if he hired me, his fate would be connected with mine.

This had a quite a chilling effect on my enthusiasm. I mean, I was even more flattered than before that someone believed in me so much that he was willing to put his own employment on the line. As much as I wanted to believe that once on the job I would win the board over by exhibiting my excellence, I wasn’t terribly keen on having people rooting for me to fail before I started.

In the end though, he found that the power unilaterally hire a subordinate was taken out of his hands as the board insisted on the person who was predominantly an accountant. The ED said the whole situation cost him a great deal politically. I actually don’t know how much longer he lasted. It has been a few years so the recent job ad could well be to replace his replacement.

It was just a very strange situation. I had never heard of a board involving themselves so intimately in hiring a person who wouldn’t be answering to them. The position didn’t set organizational policy and direction, nor did it have the ability to act autonomously. The place already had a book keeper so proficiency in keeping accounts wasn’t a high priority. Assembling and interpreting financial statements was important but I had years of experience doing so at that point.

It is the Executive Director who bears responsibility for the staff that is hired. Unless they are incredibly negligent in monitoring and disciplining employees, the ED’s job shouldn’t necessarily be directly in jeopardy with every new hire.

I spoke privately with a few people about the whole situation. The general sentiment was that the board needed better instruction about what its role in the organization was. While a board generally makes decisions about new member recruitment rather than the executive director, the ED had a role to play in educating and steering the board in its development.

So often the concern is that a board is too disengaged, unaware of the activities of the organization and remiss in the exercise of its oversight and fiduciary responsibilities. This board seemed hyper-engaged, at least in relation to this particular function. I suspect my experience was not an aberration but rather a symptom of an unhealthy dynamic between the board and the executive director. Just as the executive director saw my skills as complementary to his, since this was a newly created position, I wonder if the board’s agenda was to fill in the places in which they felt the Executive Director was lacking.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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