Supporting the Executive Director
Board support for the Executive Director
By Mark D. Burkhardt, Director for Outdoor Ministries, ELCA
One of the primary responsibilities of an outdoor ministry board is to work closely with the executive director to provide effective leadership for the organization. Supporting the executive is especially important during the first year on the job. It doesn’t matter if the person is highly experienced or a new executive leader, the transition can be quite challenging. A small group of the board, should take responsibility for working closely with the executive director during this transition. That means, among other things, establishing some clearly defined goals for the first year. These goals then become the basis for conversation during the first year. Without clearly defined goals, new executives risk becoming overwhelmed by a multitude of competing priorities. Likewise, boards run the risk of evaluating the performance of the new executive based on more subjective matters that are not necessarily related to the strategic interests of the organization.
Boards should also make sure that their new executive has the information necessary to make good decisions. This means that the new executive needs to know about any and all existing commitments made by the organization to the constituency, to vendors, to employees or anyone else. The same goes for the financial records of the organization. In fact, no critical information should be withheld from the executive director beginning at the time of the final selection process and continuing into their first few months of employment. Nothing can be more destructive to a new relationship than to find out that key pieces of information were withheld by the board in an effort to “attract a good candidate”. The relationship between the board and the executive director needs to be one that is based on complete honesty and trust. There should be no surprises, no secrets, no talking behind each others’ backs. Potential conflicts should be dealt with quickly and honestly and with the best interests of the organization in mind. The executive director and individual board members should always be treated with respect.
The board should also encourage the new executive to get connected in the local community and to a local congregation. Many new directors come to the job with tremendous amounts of energy and the temptation to over-perform is great. Boards should encourage directors to practice self-care by taking scheduled days off, vacation and time away for continuing education. Time spent with colleagues is important as the new executive works to establish a supportive group of peers. Boards should encourage this by providing time and budget for continuing education, and by letting their executive know that they expect him/her to interact with other outdoor ministry professionals on a regular basis.
I mention all of this because I’m concerned about the difficulty we are having in identifying new executive directors to work in outdoor ministries. I sometimes wonder if potential candidates are scared away by stories of non-supportive boards with unrealistically high expectations. Executive directors need supportive board members, not constant critics. They need board members who are committed to working with them on mutually agreed upon goals. They need board members that give encouragement and affirmation and truly care about their personal well-being as a sister or brother in Christ. It’s not easy being an executive director or a board member. It takes an intentional effort to succeed. How is your board doing in supporting your executive director?