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Working for a Committee? Tips for Clarifying Board Expectations
© 2010 by Lance Decker

It's called a commission, a council, the executive committee, the board of supervisors, board of trustees, governors, directors, or just… the "board." It could be a public, private or nonprofit outfit. It's the policymaking group representing the constituents and overseeing the venture.

They've had the wisdom to hire you as their agent implementing their collective direction. You're called the executive director, the president, the CEO, the superintendent, the general manager, or just… the manager. You work for the board and are required to meet their individual and collective expectations. Congratulations on making it to the top. Welcome to ambiguity!

Working for just one boss is hard, but satisfying the expectations of a board of seven, nine, twenty-six very different, independent-minded, and highly motivated individuals can be a nightmare. So, how do successful top managers know and meet the expectations of a committee? They ask them.

Now, don't be surprised if you get blank stares the first time you ask the question, "What do you expect of me?" This approach may be new to your board, so here are ten tips to help you extract and use this information for everyone's benefit.

1 - Conduct basic research. From this data create a list of what you believe your board expects of your position. (Note, I said "your position"…not you. Only learning the board's feelings about the position should you start applying that information to you, as an individual.) Sit with each board member and ask him or her to add items to your list. Have them rate the importance of each item, and assign comparative value to establish priorities.

2 - Use the data to determine trends. Do all board members value "X"? Is "Y" frequently at the bottom of the list? Is there a split over a specific characteristic? Does the odd-man-out just want to be contrary, or is there a substantive difference in that person's approach?

3 - Your research may uncover disagreements within the board. Decide whether you want to handle the subsequent discussion yourself, or whether you need to call someone like me. (That's what I do for a living.) If you do it yourself start with, "I found some of you feel strongly about "A", but others believe "A" is the wrong approach. What might be causing this apparent divergence?" Seek clarification.

4 - Determine which two or three characteristics of your job are consistently ranked the highest and develop annual objectives for each. Be specific. Make them measurable, and include them in your annual performance plan. The board should see these objectives as supporting their expectations of you.

5 - As you discuss your performance with the board, challenge them identify other expectations that might be in their collective minds. Stated or unstated, the Board will hold you accountable, so document their expectations. Ask for examples. "How would I know if I succeeded in meeting that expectation?"

6 - Expectations, like communication, are two-way. While your board has expectations of you, you also have expectations of your board. Share your expectations of them…with them. Be respectful but don't be shy. Encourage discussion and negotiation.

7 - Use your annual performance appraisal process as a scorecard to document how well the expectations are being met… both for you and for the board.

8 - Periodically ask, "So, how are we doing?" Go through each expectation, one-at-a time, and rate performance. If something can't be achieved, negotiate an appropriate change to the objective, but keep the original as baseline information throughout the period.

9 - As new board members are added and current members leave, keep communication up-to-date and flowing. Help your new members define their expectations. Establish a solid foundation for communications right from the start.

10 - During the annual performance evaluation include expectations as a discrete topic. Use this time to negotiate new or revised expectations. Again, do them in writing. Document the process and don't forget… you have expectations of the board, too.

If you're a top-level manager you probably work for a committee. It's difficult to meet all their expectations all of the time, but by developing a limited number of clear, highvalue, and strongly shared expectations your job becomes just a bit easier.

Lance Decker is a business planner whose practice focuses on local governments, community dispute resolution and conflict management. In this capacity Lance helps managers, policy-makers and their constituents find practical pathways into the future. A frequent lecturer and conference speaker, Lance has several publications to his credit and teaches college courses in strategic planning, public involvement and conflict management.
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