Governance vs Management and Defining Your Board’s Role

By Emily Hendershot • October 21, 2020

Have you ever left a board meeting frustrated about the amount of time spent in the weeds on a particular issue? Does your board spend more time discussing processes than sharing their vision or defining outcomes? If you resonate with these questions, your board members may be unclear about their board role and how to best contribute.

Many board members begin as volunteers with a strong commitment to the organization they serve and over time become highly engaged advocates. It’s no wonder when a board seat becomes available, these volunteers are at the top of the list for consideration and typically end up joining the governance team. When this transition happens, it can be difficult for volunteers to focus on their new board role, as the tendency may be to continue with their same volunteer mindset.

Moving into a board position requires a different frame of reference and level of involvement. So how do we encourage board members to focus on strategic board matters and not those of committees or their former (or even current) volunteer positions?

Governance and Management

An association can suffer from the lack of clarity in role definition between what the board does and what the executive director and staff do. These roles can be broken down into two distinctly different functions that must perform harmoniously for your association to be successful: governance and management.

Mark Thorsby of The Board Builders has long shared an analogy about governance and riding a bicycle. The front wheel of a bicycle steers or provides direction and represents governance. The back wheel provides power to propel the bicycle forward, representing management. The governance function is performed by the governing board, and the management function is performed by staff. In this case, staff can be both paid staff and/or volunteers (such as committee members). Roles can become blurred when a board member is also serving as a volunteer in another area of the organization.

The front and back wheels of a bicycle must perform together to get anywhere, just like governance and management. Governance is responsible for where the organization is going, why it’s going there, what it will accomplish, and when. Management focuses on how are we going to get there, how much will it cost, and who is going to do it.

As the executive director, you ride the bicycle. Sitting on the seat, you put your hands on the handlebars and feet on the pedals. You connect the front and back wheels. Your role is balancing the critical elements of the organization, guiding both toward the ultimate goal.

The tension of being in the executive director seat can be felt in the bicycle analogy from the need to balance each wheel differently, depending on the environment. Occasionally, your organization may need to climb a hill, causing you to pedal harder to help power the back wheel and support your staff team. In a crisis, your organization may feel it is quickly moving downhill and losing  control. During these times, you’ll need to focus on the front wheel of governance with your governing board to steer and maneuver around obstacles in order to avoid a crash. This is a big responsibility for one person and why defining both governance and management with all key stakeholders will help align everyone as you lead them toward accomplishing your organization’s mission.

Defining the Roles of Your Board

Every board has different expectations of its officers and directors. Overall, however, the board must strategically lead, not manage. If you find your board is focused heavily on the back wheel, work with your board chair to facilitate a conversation on what can be done differently to have a more distinct separation between front wheel and back wheel.

Use the agenda from your last board meeting as a point of reference during the conversation to discuss how much time was spent on back wheel, or staff, activities. Jeff De Cagna said it best in his Board Burdens article, “Boards must remove themselves from involvement in their associations’ day-to-day work, full stop.” Back wheel activities are what the board hired you to manage. Brainstorm together to determine how to adjust the mindset of your board to focus on front wheel activities moving forward.

Gaining clarity around the roles of the governing board, executive director and staff, both paid and volunteer, is critical to the future success of your association. Empowering your board to focus on vision and direction-setting allows them to deeply engage with the organization and lead in a way only they can.

By defining roles, your board is more likely to get where they want to go, and you, the executive director, will have the gift of clarity – knowing where they want to be and truly being able to help them get there.

About The Author

Emily Hendershot is a results-driven community strategist and operations consultant who enjoys equipping and empowering organizations to achieve their missions and thrive in ever-evolving industries. She’s a seasoned team leader with Nova Strategies with 10+ years of progressive association and nonprofit leadership experience. She loves building strong collaborative relationships and partnerships to help organizations strategize efforts, streamline processes, train volunteers, and grow their membership base.