Executive Committees: To Abolish or Not to Abolish

Published on October 13th, 2016

Michael Davidson

Board Coach
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Editor’s Note: My dear colleague Simone Joyaux recently wrote about abolishing executive committees. At Asking Matters we love her firebrand style and her passion and almost always agree with everything she says. This time around, we didn’t agree 100%, and I asked our board governance expert, Michael Davidson, to chime in with his take. Make sure to read Simone’s article first.

In a recent article about her “mission to destroy all executive committees,” Simone Joyaux presented five reasons for her campaign.

While her observations may apply to some organizations in some situations, my concern is with the importance of executive committees for organizations that have minimal staff resources to devote to board management and where the boards may not yet be highly functioning.


1. Emergency decision making

A true emergency belongs to the Board

Occasionally decisions need to be made that, while not organizational “emergencies” that should involve the entire board, are nonetheless urgent, such as approving a grant or contract.

While this could be accomplished by a conference call, someone will have to schedule a special meeting of the board and assure a quorum will be present (it could not be by email unless 100% of the board participates and agrees).

Who will do the scheduling? For an organization with limited staff this would be the executive director.

2. Think tank/kitchen cabinet

The CEO can reach out to various individuals

disbalanceDescribing the executive director as a “CEO” suggests that the organization being envisioned is a large top down corporate-like entity. More importantly, while this “hub and spoke” model of leadership is certainly possible and allows the executive director to control where input is coming from, it does not have the benefit of a team-thinking process that many, even in the corporate sector, have found to be valuable.

3.Sets board meeting agendas

The CEO and her staff know what’s happening in all committees

This assumes the executive director (CEO) has the time to attend to the details of the work of all of the committees and, more importantly, the organization sets up a structure where it is the executive director’s judgment of priorities that determines the board agenda.

The dialogue between the committee chairs at the executive committee level can also lead to greater ownership on the part of the board leadership in the work of the board.

4.Performance appraisals of the executive director

This certainly can be done by an ad hoc task force rather than the executive committee.

5.Processing information for the board

Agreed that committee recommendations do not need to, and should not, be “processed “ before presenting them to the board.

There are, however, other functions vis a vis committees that need to be accomplished: the ongoing analysis of the work that needs to be done in the committees; the oversight of whether the committees are getting their jobs done; and providing support when it is needed. Somebody needs to do this.

While I agree executive committees can sometimes usurp the legitimate role of the board, this potential excess can be controlled and should not preclude their usefulness as a management team for the board. In smaller organizations, that work is often left to already overburdened executive directors and board chairs.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

To learn more about Michael and his many accomplishments in the field, check out his Asking Matters Expert page and visit his website, boardcoach.com.

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