When the staff cannot deliver

What happens when the board decides that the organization must produce this or that End but the CEO says that that cannot happen, or it cannot be achieved in the time specified, or at that cost? [click the title if you cannot see the rest of this article…]

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Ends describe a benefit for some people at an appropriate cost.

It is all very well for the board to describe what is needed (to articulate Ends), but what happens when the staff reports that the Ends cannot be produced, or cannot be delivered within a reasonable time, or at reasonable cost?

Sometimes the board hears about this problem as soon as the Ends are approved. Sometimes it arises within a monitoring report.

If the answer to the question, when will the organization be in compliance, is “never” or some other unsatisfactory reply, the board has a problem.

There are a couple of responses that some boards will be tempted to use, but should not. Often some board members will think they can see the operational solution, and will try to instruct the staff as to the strategy the board members think will produce the Ends. What is wrong with this if it seems to help? If the board or its members instruct the staff with regard to strategy, then the board, not the staff, is accountable for the success of the strategy. If the board member feels that s/he can do a better job than the CEO, then that person should apply for the job — not meddle. The accountability is lost when the board instructs the staff with regard to means. The helpful board member may offer volunteer consulting services to the CEO; but this is hard to do in such a manner that the consultant is accountable to the CEO, and not the other way around. If there is even a hint that the CEO is accepting the advice because the person is also a member of the board, it is better not to proceed.

Also, it is not appropriate that the board simply takes this violation as interesting information and does nothing. The End that is being violated was something that the board understood that the ownership needed or wanted. Therefore the board has an obligation to the ownership to deal with this situation. Failure to act is failure to govern.

Policy Governance is about making a difference. When the board is faced with this situation, it has to make a hard choice. It will have choose one of two actions:

  1. Change the policy, or
  2. Change the head-of-staff.

There is no easy way out.

How important, and how appropriate is the required End? Is it what the ownership would expect of this organization, and is the time of delivery reasonable? If the job is appropriate and doable, and the person accountable cannot do it, then the board will have to find someone who can. If the work of your organization is truly important, your organization will have to have the leadership necessary to produce the required results.

In most cases, if your organization has arisen to deal with this matter, if you allow failure then simply by existing your organization is probably blocking another society from attending to this issue. Consider this: the failure is not the staff’s, it is yours for not making the hard decisions.

If the reason that the staff cannot deliver is because you asked for too much, then you simply have be realistic and change your policy. Take this action only if you are satisfied that your ownership would agree that the revised policy would be appropriate, not simply because the staff will appreciate a more relaxed requirement.

One reason not to quickly back away from your original dream is to give everyone some time to explore the possibilities. Worthy Ends have a way of attracting new and creative strategies and even unexpected resources.

Often this issue comes up as a sobering part of policy development. I will be working with a group, and the group has become excited about some Ends that they’ve just created. “But what if the staff says that they cannot do it?” Usually before I have to say anything, someone else in the room will say, “That’s easy, we will have two choices…” And everyone knows what they are. I’ve seen a situation where a board member is exploring a concept with the CEO and asks what happens if the staff cannot deliver. This time is was the CEO who said, “You will have two choices…”

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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