Respect Distinct Roles and Responsibilities

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., The Mission-Based Leadership Coach

The nonprofit Executive Director was working to achieve goals established by the board of directors to strengthen the nonprofit program for the future. However, he had some experiences with board members who were behaving in ways that made this more difficult.  For example, one repeated pressured the E.D. to hire her friends and another pressured for advancement of a particularly unprofessional, under-performing employee he liked. 

The Executive Director spoke with directors about a separation of roles and responsibilities that would be supportive of the organization’s maturation and goal achievement. But Board members who had been around since the beginning of the organization didn’t want to engage in these kinds of boundary-setting conversations and the board chair was unwilling to address board members who overstepped their authority.  Under the circumstances, the Executive Director resigned, concluding that it would be unduly difficult to effectively achieve established goals under these circumstances.

The nonprofit management literature is full of stories like these and I hear complaints about this often from my clients, too.  Role confusion is a serious problem that produces organizational dysfunction and wastes resources.  In any leadership position, it’s important to have a level of clarity about where your role and authority ends and another’s begins.  When two or more people in an organization are trying to do the same job, they will be stepping on each other’s toes and causes organizational dysfunction.  If they are leaders, this dysfunction will have ripple effects. It’s not something to neglect but, rather, something to address head-on.

So how can you achieve clarity of roles and responsibilities in a way that maximizes leadership functioning? 

  1. Divide up the responsibilities in a way that works! One common challenge to this relates to the transition time from the period when the board and volunteers fulfill all the responsibilities of the organization to the organizational stage when they hire professional staff to do the day to day work.  At that point, the board’s role must shift dramatically— to setting strategic direction and attracting support for the organization and away from managing the daily operations.  Answer the questions of what makes sense for the organization now and in the future, allowing yourselves to move beyond the way it was done in the past.  As long as responsibilities are not divided up in a way that makes sense, the organization will suffer.  Talk it out in depth.
  2. Document and communicate the division of roles and responsibilities clearly. Get specific and answer questions like whose role is it to make personnel decisions? And if it’s both the Executive Director’s responsibility and the board’s responsibility to do fund-raising, who has responsibility for which aspects? Delineate roles and responsibilities in a clear format, like a job description format – and update the document as the roles and responsibilities change over time.
  3. Normalize the tendency for roles and responsibilities to get confused—and raise the topic for discussion regularly. Raise the topic among your leadership team with some regularity to check for clarity of roles and responsibilities. It’s easy for confusion to arise about who has what roles and responsibilities—and it’s important that we, as leaders, resolve that confusion in a timely manner.  Let’s identify 1 recent instances where it seems that there was some confusion whose responsibility something was—and let’s work it through.  You want to avoid the situation in which role confusion is only addressed when it becomes a crisis, and always in a blaming manner.  The purpose is not to suggest anyone has been doing anything wrong—rather it is to strengthen our ability to lead effectively as a team.

Everyone wants to be clear what their job is!  It’s difficult to be successful if you’re not clear.

You can’t build a high-performing leadership team when there are serious, unaddressed confusions about who is responsible for what, or in an environment in which leaders step on each other to achieve their own goals, without regard for distinct roles and responsibilites.  In a high-performing leadership team, leaders have clarity about roles and responsibilities– and they demonstrate respect for boundaries and authorities.

Do you have a great example of clarifying roles and responsibilities to maximize an organization’s functioning?


Get in touch at or 720-443-5056

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