Executive Session is Toxic. Let’s End It!

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"Good things grow in the light, not in secrecy."

We need to talk about a toxic tool used by well-intentioned boards that I believe is actually corrosive to nonprofits: executive session.

It goes by lots of different names, but an executive session is the time during a non-profit board meeting when the board excuses the Executive Director (ED) and staff so they can talk among themselves. I don’t know who created this practice or why it is allowed to continue. It is universally despised by executive directors, and many board members privately admit that it feels a little bit icky. Yet through inertia, it persists.

High performing nonprofits treat the board/Executive Director relationship like a true partnership. That means open and honest communication about how things are going. Secrecy is the opposite of this and executive session is secrecy. Obviously, the ED works for the board, but if the dynamic feels like a boss/employee relationship it can breed resentment and burnout.

This is controversial, so let me explain. The board members of a nonprofit are legal “owners” of the not-for-profit corporation. One of their key functions is the hiring and supervising of the ED but in 98% of all situations, board members do NOT work at the actual organization. It is a feature (and frustration) of nonprofits that board members aren’t there on a daily basis doing the work and can’t fully understand the daily challenges of the staff.

And if board members are honest with themselves, they will admit that executive session is rarely, if ever, convened to heap praise the staff. If the conversations in executive session were flattering (or even neutral), why would the ED not be included? Some board members may respond by saying “we need a safe space to discuss the ED and the organization.” To which I would respond, “How does it serve the organization well to exclude the ED? Why not have this conversation just once – with the ED?” If board members don’t feel safe airing their concerns in front of the ED, you have a big problem. If your ED gets defensive, you have a bigger problem. Avoiding conflict and duplicating conversations isn’t really a “best practice.”

Instead, boards should create the space to have honest and tough conversations, including disagreements, in front of each other. What we need is less gossip, fewer hidden agendas, less duplication, and fewer hurt feelings. Maybe these discussions should be facilitated. Maybe you need to create a culture that allows for difficult conversations, but secrecy is rarely your best option.

So, let’s dissect executive session, piece by piece. 1) There is already a power imbalance in board conversations because the board “owns” the organization, and when powerful people want to meet about you, alone, it doesn’t feel good. 2) Executive session is more intimidating because a whole group of bosses is meeting about you. 3) The meeting happens in secret, which means there is an implicit or explicit code that information shared at that time, be kept in confidence. 4) Whether it happens at the beginning, middle or end of board business, executive session punctures the momentum and rapport of the meeting by asking a valued leader to leave. 5) The ED usually knows the details of how the organization is run better than anyone, so excluding them means you will be lacking context and insight. 6) Executive session leaves the ED feeling vulnerable, unappreciated, and wondering if their reputation has been damaged somehow.

You can see how this feels horrible for the ED. Countless executive directors go into stress mode when this happens. It breeds mistrust, secrecy, and fear.

Good things grow in the light, not in secrecy

This habit of boards to call executive session regularly is toxic. It’s a holdover of an unsophisticated management philosophy. It damages the rapport and trust an organization needs to thrive. It has no place as a standing practice in board meetings. If you don’t trust your ED, you have a bigger problem. Calling executive session, unnecessarily, will only reinforce the mistrust both ways!

There is another way.

I do believe there are rare occasions where it would be appropriate to call an executive session. These reasons generally fall into two categories; 1) performance issues and 2) compensation. Executive session may be appropriate if the ED is having a performance problem that is not being addressed through coaching, consulting, board chair support, or the board HR committee. The ED should know if the board will be discussing performance issues so there is transparency. Secondly, it’s OK to discuss the ED’s annual review and compensation package. There are rare exceptions to this. If the board wants to have a regularly occurring executive session to discuss the ED, there should be a really good reason and this reason should be communicated to the ED, so they don’t feel threatened.

Remember, the ED and the board are partners in running the organization. If EDs always feel like they are under the thumb of the board it will be corrosive.

It does little or nothing to strengthen the organization. It is universally disliked by executive directors. Most high performing organization have moved away from it and have moved to an open and honest partnership model instead.

If we want high performing organizations we should shift from the regular practice of executive session and toward more transparency, openness, honesty, and respect.

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