A client is irritated by the sudden nitpicking of her Board Chair. After two years of seeking his involvement and being rebuffed and ignored, he suddenly is looking at every document, questioning every detail, and criticizing small mistakes. She is irritated because he is jumping in at the lowest possible level, and is hurt and angry that he is ignoring the big picture which is that the organization is no longer in hospice care and in fact is coming off life support. She has saved the place through great management, and now she’s being criticized. It just doesn’t seem right to her.
I empathize and sympathize completely. I’ll always remember how early on in my tenure as Executive Director of City Harvest, our Board Chair asked me whether we’d have both white and red wines and sparkling water at our first major donor reception. My immediate internal reaction was “does he think we’ve never done anything like this before?” Of course I didn’t say that; I answered his question with assurances. And then answered some more questions about small details, that were to me were obviously going to be addressed with excellence. All the while, my brain is wondering “why is he asking about all this? Doesn’t he know we are professionals who have done this before? Doesn’t he trust us?”
Taking that question seriously, I realized later that he didn’t trust us. Not with his reputation, at any rate. And that meant he had upped his stake in the organization. The fundraising team prior to my becoming City Harvest’s leader had been mediocre at best. So his experience – and that of all other Board members – was of unmet expectations and good-enough events. Now, he had some experience with my style of work, which was to aim high and execute with excellence. However, none of those experiences directly affected him. They affected the organization’s customers and its reputation.
The major donor event was the first time our Board Chair was going to introduce the “new” City Harvest to his friends and colleagues. His personal reputation was now on the line. Naturally, he was nervous about whether we really were capable of delivering the kind of quality experience he wanted for his guests. It meant he was buying into the organization in a way he never had before. And it also told me that he wanted to ensure that his expectations would be met. Because “the devil is in the details,” that’s the level at which he needed reassurance.
Over time, I found that it was how my team and I handled the details that built or undermined Board members’ trust in our ability to manage the organization and fulfill the mission. The better we handled details, the more invested Board members became. They gave more money, asked more people for money, invited more people to events, spoke proudly of their association with City Harvest, and invited more influential people to join the Board. When we made a mistake – not sending a thank you fast enough, or spelling someone’s name wrong, or having a typo on an invitation – we heard about it loud and clear. And while it sounded like criticism or nitpicking, the real message was “you guys are too good to make this kind of mistake.” And that’s a compliment. We were doing so much right, all that could be found was tiny things to harp on.
Building on doing the details right created a strong foundation for the organization’s growth in 11 years – from serving 33,000 people a week to serving 265,000 people a week, from raising $1.9 million to raising $11+ million a year, from rescuing and delivering 4.5 million pounds of food a year to 25 million pounds of food a year, from picking up 90% baked goods to picking up 67% fresh produce.
I told my client to view her Board Chair’s criticism as a compliment. I think she gets that now.