The significance of a great executive director/board chair relationship cannot be over-stated. A strong, well-functioning board is one of a nonprofit’s most important assets, and one that is often underutilized. It’s only when the executive and board chair work in concert to support and develop their board that they get the most out of this valuable resource.
The executive has a challenging role in making this happen. But with the right skills (and a few tips), s/he can engage the board chair as a strategic partner in helping the board – and the organization – drive toward its full potential. It’s important to note that the executive is hired by and reports to the board as a whole body. The Board chair is a partner with the executive but not the executive’s supervisor.
The La Piana Consulting team recommends this list of six practical suggestions to build an effective executive director/board chair relationship.
Clarify and honor your respective roles.
The CEO is not just the board’s “go-fer,” nor is s/he an independent operator. CEOs must embrace their role in managing the board, while controlling their ego enough to see the board not as a necessary evil, but as a partner in leading the organization. Similarly, the board chair must be clear on his or her role and responsibilities. With a shared understanding of the limits and expectations of their respective roles – as well as on the overall role of the board – this pair of critical leaders can focus on what they are trying to achieve together.
Communicate early and often.
Executives should never surprise their board chair, but always prepare the way by openly sharing both successes and challenges, even distant, only-just-possible challenges. Likewise, board chairs have a responsibility to make themselves accessible to their executive.
The pair should establish a regular meeting time (ideally once a month, preferable face-to-face) to discuss organizational and board management issues. But don’t wait for that monthly meeting: communicate often, even if only by email, to share a specific tidbit, ask a question, or offer a quick read on what is going on. Try to get to know one’s counterpart on a personal level, building a solid basis of trust – essential to a strong working relationship.
Show a unified front.
Executive directors and board chairs who have a solid partnership feel comfortable disagreeing with each other respectfully in board meetings and in putting their unfinished thinking on the table for others to build on. This requires a high level of confidence in the functioning of the board, so executives and board chairs should work together to plan board agendas, manage the meetings, debrief afterward, and keep the governance process moving forward.
They might also signal their partnership by sitting together during board meetings. Once decisions are made, they must act as a unified leadership team, communicating the same message about the organization and holding one another accountable.
Develop the board.
The executive director and board chair should take responsibility for building the board’s capacity to govern with excellence. This means working together to identify needed skill sets. The executive must be willing to listen to the board chair’s ideas about what s/he thinks the board needs to be successful, and the board chair should welcome the executive’s perspective.
High impact boards don’t spend their time micromanaging, listening to reports, rubber-stamping predetermined outcomes, or second-guessing staff decisions. Instead, they leverage each member’s skills, talents, knowledge and expertise to make key strategic decisions and build the organization’s capacity for producing results.
Most board members have little, if any, training in how to effectively govern a nonprofit organization, so executives and board chairs need to continuously educate their boards about effective governing practices and provide them with the skills, information, and support to successfully carry out their roles.
Plan for transition in leadership.
Most organizations wait until the board chair’s term is about up or s/he announces plans to retire before beginning succession planning. This is an effective and short-sighted practice.
Without planning they may end up prevailing upon a board member who may not be the most qualified candidate, but who is willing to serve in the position.
Similarly, lack of planning ahead for executive transitions can threaten an organization. Executive Directors and board chairs play critical roles in thinking about the skills and qualities needed in their future board leaders and their next executive. Given the pivotal nature of the executive director/board chair relationship, filling these roles effectively over time is of utmost importance for organizational stability and effectiveness.