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Empower, Account, Integrate and Sustain: The Board Administrator's Role

By Julia Steiner Halsted May/June 2016

AS WITH ANY ORGANIZATIONAL change, strategic implementation is critical to success. It is also often the most challenging step of the process. Policy Governance is no exception. To be a success, the Policy Governance model requires a great deal of bipartisan commitment between the governing board and chief executive officer (CEO). These essential participants must begin their Policy Governance journey with an acute understanding of their roles and responsibilities as defined by the governance model. However, in our fervency to advance board and CEO competency, we are inclined to overlook the importance of sustaining the system through ongoing tactical application and the support required to manage such systems.

Arriving at Policy Governance

Nearly twenty years ago, Rockford Park District Commissioner Bruce Atwood (board member) and a senior administrator simultaneously encountered John Carver's Policy Governance model. They were both greatly intrigued. The administrator introduced then CEO (for whom we use the term Executive Director as seen in policy extracts below) Webbs Norman to this proposed utopian board-CEO governance paradigm. Shortly after that, Commissioner Atwood led the board to implement policy governance. If the model had not been introduced to the board by a peer, at that time the notion that the board should stay out of operations might have been laughable, if not irreverent. Moreover, if the CEO had not known of the model, he may have been suspicious of the board's motives for moving toward this seemingly somewhat liberal system of accountability. Instead, because of peer leadership on the part of the board, and participative management on the part of the CEO, the District pursued Policy Governance with the counsel of a trained consultant.

Two decades of courageous leadership and faithful discipline have led to an organizational culture deeply rooted in Policy Governance today. As elected officials, the board is focused on governing through policy to fulfill the purpose of the organization for the benefit of citizens. Their policies define the results to achieve, prioritize to whom services are to be provided, direct the allocation of resources, and establish boundaries of prudence and ethics within which the organization must operate. The CEO is empowered to achieve the specified outcomes, with little ambiguity as to his authority or limitations. In the experience of Rockford Park District, there have been enormous advantages provided by this clarity, which extends through the CEO into the ranks of the organization.

Consistent with board policy, the CEO is the only employee directly accountable to the board. Necessitated by the sheer size of the organization and motivated by a collaborative leadership style, the CEO delegates certain functions to staff just as the board delegates operations to the CEO. The District's CEO relies on a host of team members to facilitate decisions that impact the organization and its stakeholders. This approach is exemplified by Executive Tim Dimke, who “gives managers opportunities to operate independently while still being dependent on the same value system that drives the entire organization.”1 This is effective because staff also embrace and understand their responsibilities as they relate to Policy Governance, ensuring achievement of priority results (Ends) and compliance with prudential and ethical boundaries (Management Limitations) throughout the organization.

It is not surprising that such a participative leadership style lends itself well to Policy Governance, which itself emphasizes servant-leadership. While the CEO works on high-level initiatives and collaborations to move the organization toward achievement of the vision, mission, and priorities, staff implements tactics to achieve their corresponding objectives in the operations of daily programs and services.

Rockford Park District takes a multifaceted approach to sustaining Policy Governance by engaging all levels of the organization. The board president serves as the chief governance officer, assuring the integrity of and adherence to its governance process policies. The board president and CEO together are dedicated to maintaining communicative relationships with each of the board members. This establishes the relational avenue necessary for discussing Policy Governance roles, responsibilities, and when necessary dealing with issues of encroachment.

Board Administration

The board requires in its policies that “the Executive Director shall not permit the Board to be uninformed or unsupported in its work.” The CEO interprets good communication as being essential to compliance with this policy, with the understanding that the District needs a well-informed and supportive board and that being well informed requires the CEO to provide thorough, relevant, and timely information necessary for the board to govern with knowledge, integrity, and assurance.

The executive director is the main conduit for such communication between the board and the organization, with essential support provided by a variety of staff members, especially the recording secretary (clerk), Policy Governance manager (administrator), and executive leadership team.

Public relations issues, major projects or decisions, general updates, meeting calendars, and community engagement commitments are streamlined as a part of a weekly memo that serves as an official record of CEO communication to the board. This requires staff to be alert to information and forward anything to the CEO that may be strategically or relationally advantageous to share with the board. Certain subject matters may be elevated to periodic one-on-one meeting discussions between the CEO and each of the board members, or as formal board presentations, typically conducted by Executive Team members. Items that require the formal approval of the board are identified in governing policies and are preliminarily introduced to the board through the weekly memo, individual meetings, or full presentations. Recommendations for board action may be prepared by staff at any level and advanced through the ranks to the CEO.

A strong board-CEO relationship is enhanced by a strong team of executive managers. This team has an acute awareness of the board-established priorities and limitations as they exercise their responsibilities to advance their respective divisions of the organization toward achievement of the priorities in harmony with the whole. Board members gain familiarity with staff members by participating in staff committees when mutually agreed upon by the board and CEO. In such instances, Board policy makes clear that board members shall refrain from attempting to exercise individual control over the committee or staff. This allows the organization to capitalize on board member professional expertise, satisfy board members‘ related personal interests, and maintain peer accountability for participation with respect to governance.

At Rockford Park District, while the recording secretary (clerk) supports the CEO with board meetings, schedules, recommendations, administration, and records, the Policy Governance manager (administrator) serves at the will of the CEO as the in-house Policy Governance consultant, maintaining and aligning the governance and operational leadership system. The responsibilities include board policy maintenance and recommendations, including the annual review and approval of all board policies and regulations. The manager works as part of the executive team developing the strategic plan and CEO interpretations to align to board priorities (Ends), and coordinates more than thirty Ends and Management Limitations monitoring reports yearly. The reporting process includes input from no less than three other staff members in each division of the organization, as seen in the swim lane chart provided as Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Monitoring Report Collection Process

As part of the national accreditation readiness program, the Policy Governance manager leads a team that maintains an all-inclusive system to automate and align all operational standards, procedures, and administrative policies, to the board's governing policies as they are updated. Comprehensive approaches such as this keep the priorities (Ends) at the forefront for every employee, enhance compliance with established limitations, and establish the framework for organizational culture. A clear target, explicit boundaries, and latitude for stakeholder input and responsiveness make it simple for staff throughout the organization to make decisions, achieve milestones, and enjoy their work. The field of latitude is depicted in Figure 2 as the administrative empowerment zone, a space that cultivates innovation, growth, responsiveness, culture, and many other characteristics and activities that define the most notable organizations—those who also experience few uncalculated laments and have much to celebrate.

Figure 2.

The Administrative Empowerment Zone

I believe that boards that endeavor to lead their organizations to new heights of achievement need to consider the following:

  • Are the priority outcomes (Ends) clearly stated and understood by your CEO?
  • Are boundaries (Management Limitations) clearly stated and understood by your CEO?
  • Is there enough latitude between the goals and the boundaries to empower your CEO and, therefore, his or her team, to try new approaches to business?

If the answer is no, this uncertainty comes at a significant cost to the success, resources, and sustainability of your organization. Allowing the greatest possible degree of latitude within safe boundaries will not only improve the alignment of resources to achieve your organizational goals but also allow the CEO to empower the entire workforce to serve your customers in new, exciting ways. It all starts with the board, leading by example with empowering policies in balance with monitoring and accountability.

Julia Steiner Halsted can be contacted at JuliaHalsted@RockfordParkDistrict.org.