Dangers of an Executive Committee

Executive CommitteeIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade pivots around Indiana Jones’ relationship with his father.

During the first half of the movie, Indiana treats his dad with a mix of frustration and programmed obedience.

At one point, Indie sits with his dad and asks why they never talked.

Indie says that his dad taught him that he was less important than people who had been dead for 500 years. His dad insists that he was a great father: He gave his son independence.

The conversation heats up, and Indie’s dad finally closes his book. He leans back and says,

Okay, I’m here. What do you wanna talk about?

He stares at Indie: see the picture above.

Indie is at a loss for words. I….I don’t know, he says.

His dad says, Well alright then. We’ve got work to do!

Indie drops the topic, his dad stays convinced that he was a good father, and the movie continues.

Board & Executive Committee

We find Boards everywhere: hospitals, banks, medical associations and athletic clubs. Not all groups have Boards, but we all belong to groups governed by Boards. If we want our groups to perform well, we need to know a bit about the Boards that run them.

Boards of Directors usually have between 8 – 15 members, and sometimes over 50. Boards create strategy, select a CEO, protect the organization from harm and reflect on how the organization performs.

Boards set the course and also serve as the rescue crew. If a Board fails, the organization founders without hope.

Boards hire one employee, the CEO, to put strategies into action. The CEO, not the Board, deals with staff; Boards must not manage.

Board Directors need to be at arms’ length from an organization to be able to fulfill their duties. For more on this, check out: How to Influence a Board.

Many Boards create Executive Committees (Exec). The smallest Execs include the Board Chair, President Elect and President.

Large boards throw in one or more of: the Secretary, Honorary Treasurer, Vice Chair, Past President, and sometimes even a Member at Large. Senior management attends Exec meetings, too.

Pros of an Executive Committee

The Exec:

Works on behalf of the Board in between board meetings.

Saves the organization some money, with fewer full board meetings.

Allows the organization to respond to urgent needs.

In addition, some say that the exec helps train Directors, especially in membership organizations, to someday take on senior positions such as President.

This grooming approach has Directors serve for 8-12 years on the Board before they become President, in some cases.

But other elected Boards select their President Elect with elections that are open to all members. Many say this attracts the best candidates.

(Potential) Cons of Executive Committees

All the pros are also potential cons:

When the Exec works for the Board in between board meetings, it often assumes duties that should belong to the whole Board.

The Exec can end up duplicating work and wasting money. If an Exec becomes too powerful, it becomes a parallel Board.

An overactive Exec turns Exec members into management (staff). It gets tangled in ‘urgent’ issues that management should have handled.

There are even more risks. Often, the Exec:

A) Creates intimate ties with senior management. Enmeshed Directors cannot fulfill their duties as impartial, objective leaders.

B) Starts by handling a few crisis issues but soon becomes a vetting ground for anything of substance.

C) Becomes blind to its own influence.

Large Executive committees swear that the Board has final say and that the Board gets consulted on everything.

Even if the Exec brings an issue to the Board for debate, the Exec has already debated it in their own Exec meeting.

During the Board meeting, the Exec speaks in unison. Rare Board members challenge the wisdom of the Exec powerhouse, but votes almost never go against the Exec’s position.

None of this needs to become reality. A high functioning board stays vigilant to these potential risks and addresses them. Many Boards find ways to perform well with large Executive Committees.

The Executive Committee itself must stay almost hyper-vigilant to these traps. Execs need to actively seek input to make sure that they are not creating governance chaos. Execs will not see the mess they create unless they ask for feedback.

Pointing Fingers

When organizations stumble, look at the senior leadership. Sometimes, the CEO has been in place for years and the Board has no clue about what is going on. Still, a properly functioning Board should be able to manage even the worst CEO.

Often, Boards cause organizations to fail. They get distracted. Boards lose sight of their vision and forget why their organization exists in the first place. Add to this an Exec that wants to run everything and organizations do not have a chance.

Experienced leaders can deliver results using imperfect structure. But even great leaders find it impossible to manage crisis, when their organization lacks good governance.

At the same time, solid governance cannot protect organizations from bad leaders. High performance requires leadership and governance.

In the end, Boards are human: frail, faulty, and often blind to their own weakness. Boards find it easy to stay convinced of their success, just like Indie’s Dad stood firm on his reputation as a father, results notwithstanding.

Given all the ways that humans can fail, it is a wonder that we do anything great. But we do amazing things, all the time. Every crisis has a solution. We just need help to find it.

Boards need help, too. Hopefully, they can see that. And hopefully they see that the members they serve offer some of the best help available. Members are not the enemy.

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18 thoughts on “Dangers of an Executive Committee”

    1. Thank you, Gerry!

      I am really trying to keep things positive. Some folks have been asking for even more specifics. I think it best to see if things improve before getting into details.

      Sure appreciate your support!

      Cheers

  1. An excellent condensation of what is and has happened. The trick now is to not destroy the organization in the process of refocusing it. Unfortunately if boards, and execs especially, dig in their heels, it takes more force to clear them out. I had hoped that the OMA exec would have followed the lead of Scott Wooder and done the responsible thing and set about facilitating the transition to a new refocused and dedicated OMA. Unfortunately, it seems they are digging in and the responsibility for the damage will fall on their shoulders. I think it would be best if the exec reads the writing on the walls and the petitions and steps aside for a caretaker exec until the new elections. They should discontinue any and all talks with government at all levels. This is not a loss as the government isn’t listening anyway. We have ample engagement and a new generation willing to step up and do the job.

    1. Well said, Ernest. That’s exactly what’s happening. People who should know better are doubling down, making things far worse.

      No one questions whether this has been a hard time for the OMA. Doctors have sustained intolerable attacks from government. But that does not mean we can excuse under performance. Doctors need someone to represent their interests more now than ever.

      Why would government negotiate with an organization that does not have the full support of its members?

      Thanks for sharing a great comment, as always!

      Shawn

  2. When massive Board turnover comes, the exec will face significant resistance to their power plays and push for more control. Reform is going to happen…through another AGM or Board turnover/takeover or both.

    Doubling down with a bunker mentality and forming threatening Board only committees will only further embolden the forces mobilizing to stop them from taking complete control

    1. Great comments, Paul.

      “Reform is going to happen…” It seems natural in the face of change to react and fight it. In this case, it will make things much worse. We have seen the need for change for many years. A number of leaders tried to get meaningful change through governance review, but too few people on the outside understand Board governance and function to support renewal. Too few people on the inside understand it either. That’s why we have experts on Board governance come in to tell us what needs to change….but we ignore them or take far to long to use their advice.

      Exciting times. I just wish it wasn’t so painful for doctors while we wait.

      Thanks for sharing a comment!

      Shawn

  3. The OMA, in the eyes of many members, is neither inspiring, seemingly more supportive of provincial government than members, and has too much bureaucracy that leaves little room for grass roots ownership. IMO, even as a perks provider, such as insurance & disability, it is not very competitive when you take into account the dues. Currently it is more of a Clinton than the Coalition’s Trump, and we all know now where that can lead.

    1. I feel really stupid for not raising that before, Steph. Great point: We forget that we paid thousands in dues to get our deal on insurance.

      Your point about supporting the government more than members is accurate, too. Legislative changes do not change culture immediately. It took 7-8 years after Medicare before the OMA became more interested in cozying up to government than advocating for doctors. Like every stakeholder in state-run medicine, you have to get intimate with government, if you want money for your members. The RAND formula cemented that attitude. Members and all their opinions are not seen as helping the organization. Once leaders take a low view of advocating for members, they quickly become infatuated with the idea of system change and helping doctors to see things differently….if doctors could only see that their concerns are not really legitimate in the grand scope of healthcare concerns at a provincial level. At that point, the association has ceased to serve members at all.

      Thanks so much for taking time to share a few thoughts! Excellent.

      Shawn

  4. When hospital boards fail to be responsive to their communities, cannot manage the budgets approved by LHINs, then MOH can disband the Board, appoint a supervisor, and “clear the deck”, although that does not help the financial picture specifically, but it does re-establish some confidence in the Board and their governance.
    Here we have an organization, OMA, for which financial concerns are not yet an issue, with a Board that does not appear to listen to the membership, that responds again and again with we want to listen to you, yet does not hear us, and there does not appear to be a mechanism to “clear the deck”. When the organization through the Board begins to take action against the membership, starts digging a moat around the OMA castle to prevent the members from breaching the walls, then that Board has lost the privilege to rule.
    Sadly, it will take another GMM to restore trust in the OMA governance by the membership.

    1. Well said, Monique.

      Unions also have to hold a referendum every now and then, to see if members want to stay unionized. When doctors face good financial times, we ignore how the OMA functions, how it tends to put members’ issues second.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. I will never forget all the times between 2004 – 2010 when I was on the SGFP as rep for district 3 when OMA Central came to speak to us about our ‘behaviour’ whenever it was felt by them that we were ‘misbehaving’.

    The message was always clear…we lead you and you are to toe the ‘party line’ and do what we told you. I always made it a point to roast the speaker, who was always a member of the OMA Board Executive, and make them extremely uncomfortable for their views on top-down authoritarianism…

    1. Well done, Paul!

      Far too many docs either do not know how to push back, or just roll their eyes and walk away.

  6. Palpable condescension for the needs of people, doctors or others, is simply not leadership and it is certainly not representation.

    1. Well said, Merrilee!

      Let’s hope not every leader comes across as condescending, but many do, for sure.

      Great point!

  7. Shawn, great elucidation on the failure in governance that is the OMA. The plainly apparent evidence I see of the failure of the OMA executive to govern and not manage is the profile of the CEO. Many Ontario MD’s have no idea that the OMA even has a CEO. The executive is running the show, and last I checked that’s the definition of bad corporate governance.

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