The description of an association or chamber executive director is that of a professional. Executive directors are a critical part of the leadership team dedicated to serving the members, advancing the mission and working in partnership with the board of directors.

They are generally responsible for the implementation of a strategic plan in a manner that is cost- and time-efficient. The executive is also responsible for day-to-day operations including managing staff and advancing a program of work, among other duties.

While the executive manages the organization, the board of directors is responsible for governing it. Governance includes setting a vision, developing a strategic plan, overseeing resources and working towards significant outcomes.

If the board does not fulfill its role, the executive will have problems. Every executive wants a great board and faces disappointment when it fails to govern.

These are the more common disappointments an executive may encounter:

  • conflicts of interest and personal agendas
  • abandoning the strategic direction
  • breaching confidentiality
  • micromanagement of staff or committees

Conflicts of interest

Most volunteers join a board to advance a mission, cause or community and to offer their expertise. However, a few directors may join for personal gain or ego.

Inherently, executives are people-pleasers. They want to meet and exceed the expectations of their members and those of the governing body. Personal agendas can sabotage the success of an organization.

Board members unable to set aside their personal agendas or resolve conflicts are inevitably setting the executive director up for undue stress and failure. When conflicts of interest arise, they create difficulties for the executive. Conflicts impede the smooth operations of a board.


The board sets a multiyear strategic plan to guide successive leaders. As directors join a board, the first question should be, "Where is the strategic plan? My responsibility is to advance it."

A board that ignores the existing plan or deviates to their personal agendas or a desire to leave a legacy is doing the executive director a disservice. A board's actions, words and deeds should advance the mission and strategic goals.

Negating its importance is a significant misstep. If no strategic plan exists, make it a priority to develop.


Discussions and documents accessed by the board of directors are confidential in nature. Directors will be privy to member grievances, contracts, performance reviews and collaborative plans, which should be discussed and treated confidentially. The boardroom is intended to be a safe place to hold conversations without fear that information will be leaked by directors.

When board members disregard confidentiality, they create issues for the executive director. The breach puts the executive in an uncomfortable and potentially liable situation, causing distress and distrust. An individual who leaks information to other members, media or government can cause irreparable harm.

In the boardroom, trust is the foundation for advancing efforts and developing quality outcomes. If the executive director cannot trust the leadership, problems will arise.


The board's role is to govern, leaving management to the executive director. The distinction between board and executive can be vague or misunderstood. Troubles occur when the board delves into day-to-day operations.

Some directors begin their terms thinking, "I'm going to fix this organization now that I'm on the board." But their duties are governance and advancing the mission, not micromanagement.

It is imperative that boards focus on strategy, vision and governing. It is equally important that they respect the executive, allowing them to do their job. If those distinctions cannot be respected, the executive will struggle.

The executive's work is framed by policies, job description, culture, experience, budget and the strategic plan. Executives don't expect a board to tell them what to do and how to do it.

These are a few areas where boards might let down their executive. If problems arise, use them as opportunities to clarify and learn.

Avoid the problems by maintaining a healthy respect for the professionalism of an executive. Know the distinctions between governance and management. Dust off the strategic plan. Adopt policies promoting disclosure of conflicts and confidentiality. Discourage personal agendas, and call out directors who drop to the level of micromanagement.