We regularly remark upon the significance of a great CEO-board chair relationship. 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 CEO and board chair work in concert to support and develop their board, that they get the most out of this valuable resource.
The CEO has a challenging role in making this happen. But with the right skills (and a few tips), he/she can engage the board chair as a strategic partner in helping the board – and the organization – drive toward its full potential.
The La Piana Consulting team put our heads together to assemble this list of six practical suggestions to build an effective CEO/board chair relationship:
1. Clarify and honor your respective roles. The CEO is not just the board’s “go-fer,” nor is he/she 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.
2. Communicate early and often. CEOs 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 CEO. The pair should establish a regular meeting time (ideally once a month, preferably 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.
3. Show a unified front. CEOs 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 CEOs 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.
4. Develop the board. The CEO 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 CEO must be willing to listen to the board chair’s ideas aboutwhat he/she thinks the board needs to be successful, and the board chair should welcome the CEO’s perspective. Highimpact 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 CEOs 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.
5. Plan for transitions in leadership: Most organizations wait until the board chair’s term is about up or he/she announces plans to retire before beginning succession planning. 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 CEO transitions can threaten an organization. CEOs and board chairs play critical roles in thinking about the skills and qualities needed in their future board leaders and their next CEO. Given the pivotal nature of the CEO/board chair relationship, filling these roles effectively over time is of utmost importance for organizational stability and effectiveness.
6. Consider the benefits of coaching: Both CEOs and board chairs may need extra help or coaching on how to effectively manage the board. Together, they can determine whether one or both of them might benefit from coaching It is the board’s responsibility in its supervisory capacity to help the CEO identify his or her training needs, and a trusted board chair can play a key role in making this happen.
How to get started? Have the conversation. The CEO or board chair need to let their counterpart know that he/she values a strong working relationship and why. Make it concrete. For example: “I value your advice and would like to be able to speak with you more regularly.” Or even: “I feel that you and I aren’t always on the same page in meetings; can we talk through some of those issues one-on-one to see where there’s common ground?” This opens up a dialog about how each can help the other do their job more effectively.
Remember, too, that once this connection is made, it will – like any relationship – take time and commitment to maintain. Keep at it, and together you can create a great board team.