When new leaders inspire an end run: Tips and scripts for board membersMary Bear Hughes
Everyone wants leadership transitions to be successful – but even with the best intentions, certain board actions can work against it. If you’re overseeing a change in leadership from the board table, here’s how to handle the all-too-frequent “end run” maneuver made by staffers as they acclimate to a new executive.
First: It’s appropriate to show staff members that you understand the difficulty of transition. It’s also appropriate to tell them that the best thing they can do for the organization is to remain open to the new executive director, be direct with him or her, and commit to making the transition successful.
However, as a board member, you are likely to receive calls from staff members who are anxious for themselves and the organization, particularly when the new executive makes a decision that involves change. There is a way for you to handle such calls that will support the new executive, build their credibility, reduce disruption to the organization, and enhance success.
Should you receive such a call, try a variation on this script:
[Staff member], our [friendship/working relationship] is important to me. However, I have to separate myself from any conversation with you about [the executive in question]. The board hired her after the transition committee’s careful consideration of many candidates. She has our full faith and confidence. It undermines her and interrupts the development of your own relationship with her if I speak with you about her, or what she does relative to you or other staff members.
Most staff members will end the conversation when you request that they do so, and you won’t have to proceed any further. However, if the staff member persists, try this message: “You need to speak with [the executive] about your concerns and resolve them with her.”
If the staff member continues to provide details of their concerns? “Please don’t tell me anything further, because I’m obligated, as a board member, to pass along whatever you tell me to her.”
Should they insist you need to be aware of something: “If you are reporting harassment, discrimination, violation of the law, financial mismanagement, or violation of company policy, I’ll find the right board member for you to speak with. Otherwise, this is a staff matter that has to be taken up with [the executive].”
Most employee complaints about new leadership are, fundamentally, about change. Though the previous executive may have been doing great work, chances are good that your new executive has been brought in to implement some kind of change. Even if change isn’t the mandate, the new leader will likely want to do some things differently.
The real deal?
On the other hand, suppose that what the employee has said really does concern you.
In that case, pick up the phone and call the new executive to express your concern. Assure him or her that you properly directed the employee back to them, and did not express any dismay or disapproval of their actions. Tell him or her that, nevertheless, what you heard is concerning, and you’d like to better understand what may be underlying the complaint. In most cases, you’ll be satisfied with the answer.
To tell or not to tell
An employee has no right to expect your confidentiality. On the contrary, the employee reports to (or ultimately up to) the executive, not you or the board. An executive has the right to know which employee approached you. With this knowledge, they can work to establish a direct relationship with that employee and, either directly or more subtly, work with the employee to ensure she or he understands the need for change, and the expectations of the job within the context of change.
Following these guidelines will help build your relationship with the new executive, and create an environment of trust that will enable the executive to rely on you for occasional advice as well as formal guidance.
Mary Bear Hughes is a senior consultant for the Nonprofit Consulting Group at GCN, where she leads the executive search and transition practice.