My Last Board Meeting

Today is my last board meeting as president of the Kennedy Center. It is likely the last time I will sit in any board meeting as anything other than a consultant. After 29 years of running arts institutions and sitting in board meetings, my principal feelings are both of nostalgia and relief.

I have run five arts institutions in my career. In each case I was fortunate to have supportive, generous board members who provided tremendous assistance. Of course, each board had its own personality and culture with some being more engaged, others being more generous with their own funds, others being more argumentative. But all supported my work and my plans and I am indebted to each of them.

That said I will not miss going to board meetings. There is something uncomfortable about the board/staff relationship that I have never successfully navigated.

I appreciate that board members are empowered to govern the institution and decide who will run the organization and approve the annual budget and key plans. These are essential functions and those board members who approach these tasks with seriousness and generosity of spirit are invaluable.

But the truth is that staff members almost always know more than board members about the institution and its environment, opportunities and constraints. Staff members typically spend 40 to 60 hours a week at the organization, board members do not. As a group, staff members have a vast institutional memory about what has worked, who is interested in the institution, what the press cares about, etc. Sometimes this can get in the way of progress -- the fact that something has been tried does not mean it has been implemented well. But, in most cases, I find that staff members have a far deeper understanding of the institution than do their board members.

While board members bring their knowledge and experience from other ventures to the board room, this experience is not always transferable. Knowing how to market banks, soap or computers does not mean one knows how to market opera, for example.

And board members can escape -- they go on vacation, get deeply involved with their own projects, or can simply vanish for a period of time -- while staff members do not have that luxury. We cannot disappear during a cash flow crisis; we must deal with it.

So while I know I report to my board, I also often feel that I am reporting to a group of people who simply do not know as much as I do about the organization or are as responsible to it. I have to act as if they are my superiors without truly feeling it. I know this has been read as arrogance by more than one of my board members during my career and I imagine there is a touch of arrogance to my behavior.

I also know that the best boards and board chairs appreciate the expertise of staff and encourage a respectful dialogue between board members and staff leadership and I have been treated exceptionally well by all of my boards.

But I also know that I will breathe a sigh of relief when I leave the board room later today.