When trust erodes between a nonprofit executive and a board, the death throes of the relationship can be torturous. Forrest Rodgers used to be the CEO at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, but last summer a simmering struggle between Rodgers and the board blew up in a big way. After a long period of infighting one board member after another resigned, many of them in Rodgers’s camp, and once the coast was clear, the remainder of the board began a series of evaluations provided to him in written memos, culminating in an order to receive management training.
Then, last month, he was finally fired—for the second time. The board had tried to fire him once, but they had violated the open meetings process, so he was back after only a few months. The second time, all the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed.
According to the Spokesman-Review, memos Rodgers provided to the paper indicate some of the excruciating depths to which the relationship had devolved:
One November [board] memo, provided by Rodgers, expressed concerns about a postcard invitation for an event celebrating the Lego exhibit. The memo said it was sent too late and didn’t have the museum’s logo on it.
The memos said Rodgers ignored directions to update the board about a study on increasing non-state revenue for the museum. They were upset that he did not arrange for two guests of a board member at an art fundraiser. They said his initial draft of the “Museum Work Plan” didn’t meet the board’s expectations and that he missed a deadline to update it.
“You have failed to perform your duties consistent with the set expectations and your disregard of the Board’s instruction demonstrates insubordinate behavior,” according to a memo from the board dated January 12th. “Moving forward, understand that you are expected to comply with Board direction, including those phrased in terms of ‘requests.’ Failure to do so constitutes a failure to meet the performance expectations for the Executive Director position and further constitutes insubordination.”
Board members say they had a responsibility to ensure that Rodgers was doing his job, but Rodgers says the memos were over the top. “The one thing they didn’t require me to do is inform them when I had to go to the bathroom,” he said, adding that maybe the board was the one that needed to take a powder.
“The museum board is a self-selecting board that is not accountable to anyone and yet it is considered by the attorney general to be a governing board of a state agency,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers, who is credited by some with getting the museum through the depths of the recession, has strong supporters and detractors not only among the board but the staff, which has made for a tumultuous run. Though he was cleared of charges of gender discrimination after a recent state investigation, the report found a staff that was polarized on the subject of his leadership.
“It is more than likely that Mr. Rodgers’ leadership and communication since August 2012 has had a significant and detrimental impact on the MAC,” the final state report said. Rodgers says the dissatisfaction was in part due to changes he was making to deal with budget problems.
In any case, I think it is probably safe to say that once the odd notion of “insubordination” comes up between a board and CEO, and especially when the CEO’s supporters on the board are first to resign, you can probably start counting the days left in your tenure in leadership.—Ruth McCambridge