Why Nominating Committees Should Not Exclude the Executive Director

It is sometimes difficult to figure out for whom I write these blogs. Sometimes I cover musical subjects or issues that probably interest both the general music-loving reader and those in the orchestra or music business. But sometimes I feel the need to express myself on a matter that might well be of interest and importance to those connected to orchestras, but not particularly relevant to those who sit in the audience. This is probably such a subject.
It has to do with whether it is appropriate for the executive director (or whatever title the paid head of the orchestra's management holds) to serve on the nominating committee of the board of directors (sometimes that committee is called board development, governance, or board enrichment).  Sadly, in some orchestras, particularly smaller ones, this is actually a bone of contention--often between a board chair and an executive director.

As someone who has served in both roles--board chair and executive director--and as someone who has been on nonprofit boards for almost all of the past 42 years--I feel that I might have the experience to comment on this. The fact is that it is inappropriate to prevent the executive director from serving on that committee. If a board wants to make that presence a non-voting ex officio position, as opposed to a regular ex officio position (which, though many people get this wrong, does always have voting rights unless specified differently in by-laws), I suppose it is okay--though I find it a silly symbolic move that makes no sense, because an orchestra's nominating committee that makes an important decision by a one-vote margin is probably careening toward the abyss anyhow.

The executive director is the top paid professional in the running of the orchestral organization. She has been hired for her experience, knowledge of the field, and because unlike board members, she will devote full time to the job. She knows more about what the organization needs than any other person--what skill sets, what talents, what kinds of people. To those who would say "but the executive director shouldn't get to choose her boss," I think I have to say "piffle." (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) First, having a presence and even one vote in the nominating committee room does not give a person any genuine control.  Second, the board chair, or new board members, may be structurally the "boss," but the truth is that the organization, if it is going to be successful, needs to run with those people as colleagues and partners, not "boss" and "employee."

I write here about this issue because it is symbolic of an important problem in some American orchestras. Boards or board members who consider the professional staff the "hired help," in the most demeaning sense of that term, clearly do not understand how organizations work. Professional orchestras, even small ones, are complex organizations that require skill and knowledge to operate. Boards that fail to include their professional management in the true leadership circle of the orchestra are, in my view, boards that are failing in their fiduciary and governance responsibilities.

I know of one small orchestra where a new board chair decided to change a longstanding policy of executive director attendance at nominating committee meetings, and actually said to the executive director something like: "when the board wants your opinions about board matters, we'll ask you." I cannot find the words, at least not in a family-friendly blog, to adequately express my reaction to that kind of thinking--but I can guarantee you that that is an orchestra headed for trouble.  If the executive director deserves that kind of treatment, fire her.  But don't demean the position, and don't position the board/executive director relationship as an issue of rank or status.  The executive director, in the effective orchestral organization, is a key and integral part of the leadership team. In my view, in the healthiest of orchestras, if the executive director and board chair were meeting with each other to discuss major issues facing the orchestra, an observer in the room who did not know the parties personally would not know which was which, because they were talking as equals.


July 3, 2009 11:35 AM | | Comments (2)



Bravo, Henry! This blog should be required reading for all boards.

Indeed. On one board I was once on, several directors wanted to show that the general manager was "working for us, not the other way around". Many years' experience in business has made me doubtful about the value of detailed job descriptions but it is important for boards to realize that they are there primarily to support management. I cannot imagine a meeting, other than one to discuss the firing of the general manager, that should exclude her.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on July 3, 2009 11:35 AM.

São Paulo's Little-Known Orchestral Treasure was the previous entry in this blog.

Fond Farewell: Moving On from the League of American Orchestras is the next entry in this blog.

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