Q: I am an executive director who has been in my position for awhile. Each December as the year draws to a close and the new year approaches, I try to make time to reflect on my leadership and career. I endeavor to develop a vision for the future. I ask myself about my career plan and where I want to be in 3 years, 5 years and 10 years. One tool that is helpful in this regard is simply updating my resume and references and outlining professional development goals for the coming year. In chatting with a colleague about this process, a question was posed on which I would appreciate your thoughts and insights.
In many businesses asking colleagues, the boss, or a fellow board member to serve as a reference is considered acceptable and customary. These are people that can attest to your qualifications and skills. If I were to ask for a recommendation from one or two of the directors that sit on the board of our organization would they have an obligation to tell their fellow board members of this request, given their duty of loyalty?
A: If you do this every year and are truly only doing this as an exercise, why not cut off all potential for talk or concern by saying to the entire board that you have made this an annual practice and would like to ask one or two of them each year to write “the recommendation they would write if you were actually looking for a job.” I suggest you be clear that while at this time you are not intending to leave, you like to keep a running record of your accomplishments and how these accomplishments are perceived by those who know your work best. You might choose to also point out that you are sure all of them can appreciate that in this environment one never knows when the circumstances will make it advantageous or necessary to make a change, perhaps suddenly. Not only would this keep everything above board, enhancing communication, trust and respect, it would give you an idea of what the board sees as your strengths and keep the members on their toes, especially if they want to be sure you stay. With an annual reminder that you are marketable, they will be more likely to schedule that annual review, respond to your requests for salary and/or benefit increases as best they can and be respectful of your time and needs. If they’re smart, they’ll also ask you specifically if there are any aspects of your job with which you are dissatisfied and whether there is anything they can do to more effectively partner with you.
But of course, this does not address the question you raised. I could find nothing that spoke to this issue, so I consulted a colleague, Jane Garthson of the Garthson Leadership Centre, who specializes in ethics. She felt that since the board member is being asked as an individual to provide the reference, rather than to comment as a representative of the board, that person would not risk dereliction of his/her duty of loyalty either by responding to your request or keeping it confidential. But, Jane adds, if you want to be sure that s/he does not run to feed the rumor mill, you should clarify upfront that you wish this request and his/her response remain confidential.