Michael Johnson, former president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati wrote the following letter to the agency’s board of directors on Oct. 15 detaining his issues with Julia Poston, board chair. Johnson and Poston both resigned their positions during the past week.
Johnson’s unedited letter to the board as provided to the Herald follows:
Subject: Concerns & Path Forward
Dear Members of the Board,
I was excited about the opportunity to come and take this United Way to a new level as we embark on reducing poverty in our region. Not only did I leave a prominent nonprofit executive role, but my wife left her job and we moved our family to this region and purchased a home. I was excited to serve as the 1st African American President & CEO in the 100 plus year history of United Way of Greater Cincinnati. I felt I could make a difference in this role. I have worked with 10 board presidents in 3 different states, receiving outstanding reviews. I’ve been a successful nonprofit leader for more than 20 years. I have never heard of a CEO having to run decisions through a subordinate. I have never been micromanaged and disrespected the way I am being now. I have communicated my concerns in writing. I’ve tried to communicate my concerns to the others in a careful manner, but to no avail. I have no other choice but to raise this issue with the full board, as I have received subtle threats from the Board Chair. Recently, I had the most humiliating experience in a professional setting, as she has blatantly disrespected and attacked my character. She is unfairly attacking my credibility with key stakeholders and creating challenges within our organization.
Run decisions through the Chief Strategy Officer: I am being pressured by our Board Chair to “run things” through our Chief Strategy Officer (CSO). I am unfamiliar with an organizational structure where everything is run through a subordinate, regardless of their title. I am open to receiving and requesting advice and counsel, but the current structure does not give this kind of authority and it’s a model I think will set us up for failure. I have more than 10 years of experience as a nonprofit CEO with an MBA in Global Management. So forcing me to report to a subordinate, who has no formal college education and only one year of nonprofit management experience, gives me great pause. Despite this, I tried my best to work with our CSO and began meeting with her weekly, running my ideas by her, as directed by the Board Chair. These one on one strategy meetings with the CSO appear designed to get my thoughts and ideas and then are shared in a manner that creates confusion and division among the executive team and helps “stir the pot” as stated from a letter I received from a concerned employee. I am being asked to make Tina McVeigh our Chief Operating Officer and my number two in command. I cannot agree to this, unless you give me this directive in writing, and I am happy to share my reasons, some of which are discussed below.
Undue Hiring Pressure from Board Chair: I believe our Board Chair is too involved in the day-to-day operations of our organization. She is placing undue pressure on our team to do things her way, and overreaching her authority. I have documented communication between us that demonstrate the undue influence and pressure she is bestowing upon the operations of the organization. One example is the hiring of our Chief Development Officer; a position that currently reports directly to me. We both agreed to have a selection committee. I developed a plan and a timeline with the VP of Human Resources. On August 24th, I texted Julia, after learning from our Chief Strategy Officer that Julia overturned my decision without talking with me and placed Tina on the selection committee with the volunteers. I voiced my concerns in writing. Julia informed me that Tina was special among the other Vice President’s and was the ranking VP. I told Julia that our organizational structure and her pay grade do not reflect this. Julia still over ruled my decision and I was told that any Human Resources changes had to be “run by” Tina, as she was the senior leader over Human Resources. I agreed to comply, despite sharing my concerns about this.
Julia was also adamant about having an outside nonprofit leader grade the final candidates. I was concerned about confidentiality of the candidates. I shared my concerns in writing, called her, and told her that this is not a best practice and that I opposed this idea. She rejected my concerns and I accepted it. I also shared my concerns in writing about a selection committee member she chose to be on the committee, who was a reference for her preferred candidate. I asked Julia if this person could be removed because there was a conflict of interest. I received a letter from a colleague at United Way warning me that the process was stacked in favor of Julia’s preferred candidate and that the aforementioned committee member was telling people who would get the job. I gave the letter to Julia. She rejected my request to cure the conflict, and I accepted it. After going through the process, I informed Julia of my decision. She responded to me and asked in writing, how my executive team voted and who they voted for. I then shared with her the votes and informed her that I was not going to hire the person she preferred and gave my reason why, and after that I started to feel extensive pressure from her.
Hostile Work Environment: Soon after the selection of the Chief Development Officer, I began receiving subtle threats of being marginalized for not falling in line with Julia’s recommendations. For example, I was informed by Julia that she has fired two male CEO’s. She began to tell me how she ousted a very prominent male leader at the Chamber of Commerce and referenced how he was always “shaking hands and kissing babies.” She suggested that I slow down on some of that same behavior and directed me to reduce my presence in the community and social media. I was appalled by the comment, especially after she began telling me how women need to take on leadership roles in the C-Suite across the city and how it was important for Tina and other women around me to feel empowered. At the time, I reminded her that our executive team is made up of mostly women, except for Ross and myself and that 70% of our employees are women. It was clear to me that she expected me to take a secondary role in the organization and elevate the women around me. She has been extremely focused on Tina’s role as being the COO.
I am not feeling heard and I don’t feel empowered in my role. Julia is creating division among the executive team, and she is acting as the CEO. I was hired to be of service to this community, but I don’t believe I was hired with the right intentions based on what is playing out. My previous experience is being discounted by our Chair and she informed me that my “success in other places won’t work here.” She has stated, “you need to fall in line” effectively resulting in me being nothing more than a figure head for United Way.
Being Referred to as an Angry Man: On October 15, 2018, I sent a letter to members of my executive team concerning issues that I wanted to document and raise with them. Julia shared with me that my memo was forwarded to her. After conversing with her about the memo, she told me the memo was nothing more than me fighting for “control” and told me to just stop it, listen to people, shut up, and put my head down. She told me I was nothing more than an angry man and referred to me as a boxer in a ring. She also asked me several times, “What are you going to do?” and pointed her finger towards me. I told her that I offered a path forward in a memo that I sent to her and other board members, and she rejected my recommendations. I asked her if I could leave the meeting because I had an appointment with the Cincinnati Bengals, and then I left for the meeting. I was very shaken by this altercation and called a friend to pray with me.
Transition of E-Team Members: It is common that when new CEO’s are hired, some senior executives transition out for a variety of reasons. I have started to see this trend in many other organizations in this region with new or fairly recent CEO hires, like Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and the Freedom Center, to name a few. I committed dozens of hours trying to work with this team, meeting with them one on one, taking them to lunch, and meeting weekly with them. Within weeks of my hire, the board chair was already telling me that I needed to cater to them and keep them happy, because they needed my attention. Please note, upon my hire, I was informed that two members of the executive team would be retiring in the near future and one was already looking for a new job, so that is coming to fruition. While their commitment and expertise has served this organization well, I believe that these transitions are good for the organization and will allow me an opportunity to create a team which will provide renewed energy and a commitment towards a new agenda. Obviously changes are necessary, given the state of affairs that, unfortunately, preceded my arrival. In my last meeting with our Board Chair she threatened that if I did not “beg” these folks to stay that it would be “catastrophic” for me.
United Way Key Initiatives at Risk: I was made aware early in my tenure that two of our key signature United Way initiatives, The Employer Round Table and the Child Poverty Collaborative, were at risk. I believe that these two initiatives may transition to some of our partnering organizations. However, I think a serious discussion with our key volunteers is needed, because these decisions will have an impact on United Way’s poverty agenda moving forward. Our Board Chair is telling me to stand down as other organizations snatch these programs away from us. The two final candidates for my job at United Way have coordinated an effort to steer key United Way initiatives away from us and our Board Chair will not allow me fight for these programs and resources. I would strongly suggest that you pay attention to this, because our staff is pleading with me to address this issue, but I am being told to stand down.
The Condition of United Way Requires Change: I am disappointed to report that I feel misled. During my interview process, I was not informed about the unprecedented cuts made to United Way staff over the years or the recent campaign trends and cuts we would be facing, plus the role that I would play as your CEO in solving these challenges. I did not know that this United Way had such financial and structural challenges when I took the job, or that I would have to cut so many jobs to correct these problems. The Board Chair is an accounting partner. She knew the shape of the organization, and that should have been shared with me so I could help with developing a path forward. Well run organizations do not recruit and hire a new leader knowing that his/her first order of business will be to lay off large groups of people causing discord in the organization. That is not a good recipe for success. I am very disappointed that under Julia’s leadership that is the position I was put in. These financial challenges should have been addressed before I took the job. However, I am committed to addressing these challenges and turning around the organization, as long as I am allowed to lead. But in order to allow me to do so, I am asking the board to address these concerns.
Path Forward: These next few months are going to be challenging for United Way as we are preparing to make 15-20% cuts to agencies, and we will have to lay off more than a dozen people from our workforce. These issues will be hard on a lot of people, including hundreds of children, families and individuals we serve in our community. There will be complaints and criticism. We need to be united on this process. I am disappointed by the aforementioned items. I did not expect to have to face them when I joined the organization. But, I am capable of handling these challenges and making this organization great. However, I cannot do so if Julia continues to act as the CEO and insists that I take a back seat to Tina. My employment agreement clearly states that I am the president and CEO and that I report to the Board – not just the Board Chair. Therefore, I am reporting to the Board, that I have serious concerns regarding the health of the organization and Julia’s role in it. While I understand her term ends in six months, these next six months are critical. A lot of damage can be done to the organization in that time, if this situation is not resolved now!
I hope I am not retaliated against for sharing my concerns and that we can come up with a resolution to the concerns I have raised. This community is depending on us to do so. However, it is clear to me that Julia is doing her best to marginalize my role in the organization. In so doing, she is preventing me from doing my job and threatening the success of the organization. At this point, I feel I have been terminated from my position as President and CEO, and Julia has taken on that role and dispersed my duties to others.
I call your attention to my employment agreement, which provides for severance in the event of termination. If it is the consensus of the board that the solution is a fresh start, then I will accept that decision and we can work toward a smooth transition per our employment agreement.
If I am staying, I need to be able to act as the President and CEO. I will no longer meet with Julia one on one. Because she clearly has a discriminatory motive against me based upon her own statements, and I have now complained about this discrimination, I suggest that meetings with her will need to include 2 other members of the board of our collective choice to protect everyone involved. I also ask that she be restricted from contacting my team without my permission, since there has been a history of her undermining my ability to lead when she gives the appearance she is the CEO. I struggled and prayed before sending this letter, but I am compelled by my contract to protect the stakeholders of United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
Thanks for taking the opportunity to understand my aforementioned thoughts and concerns.