September 25, 2017
 
Getting Your Board Chair and CEO to Work Well Together

By Susan Wobst

Susan Wobst
Nonprofits benefit most when the board chair, who ensures that the board gets its work done well, and the CEO, who oversees quality day-to-day performance, work in harmony, but suffer when a low-functioning relationship exists between the two.

When the chair and the CEO are in sync on organizational aims, values, standards and rationales, everyone benefits: the community, clients, internal and external stakeholders.

Easy to say, but reality is not a neat package. The chair/CEO relationship is very rarely documented. It takes so many forms, and deep cultural practices evolve over long periods, for better or worse.

Let’s examine a low-functioning chair/CEO relationship:
  • The chair got her position by “default.” No one else would take it. She does not really know what it involves.
  • The CEO tries to help by going over the by-laws and board manual, containing job responsibilities of the chair.
  • The chair thanks the CEO and then does very little reflected in these corporate documents. In fact the chair comes away thinking, “This is too much work!”
  • The chair tends to begin each agenda item by giving her personal opinion.
  • After a few rounds, the CEO begins to take over – to shape the board meetings, try to get members to do their work, or just assign it to staff, sidelining the chair (and the board).
What can be done? Here are some steps to try:

Chair and CEO hold their own “mini retreat” for getting on same page.
  • What are the key duties of the chair, and how can the CEO support this, prioritized, in increments?
  • What are the key duties of the CEO in regard to the board and how do these differ from the chair/CEO relationship? (Hint: CEO reports to the board not to the chair; CEO and chair work in tandem to prepare board sessions, keep eye on horizon and on immediate decisions to be made by the board.)
  • Be forthright about frustrations to date and concerns for the future. Commit to actions that will lead to more effective relationship.
Chair and CEO prepare their first agenda together.
  • What decisions need be made, based on what information, to ensure good discussion and informed vote?
  • Iron out the chair/CEO differences behind closed doors so that at board meeting, any vigorous debate comes come from other board members, not the leader duo.
  • The CEO could prep the chair for what to do in the event that rousing debate edges into personal rancor. Again, the chair is in charge here, like it or not.
Chair and CEO hold a mini debrief after this first collegially-prepared board meeting.
  • What went well and why.
  • What did not go well, or was not anticipated and why.
  • What to improve for the next board meeting—CEO and chair separately, and together.
In this way, over time, the chair and CEO will come into their joint role to ensure that the nonprofit is functioning optimally. Further, board members and staff will see these two synergizing leaders as models for mutual trust, respect of differences, and keeping the goals of the organization at the forefront of decision-making.

But there is perhaps another reality.
  • Founding CEO is de facto in charge of the board who are all his friends.
  • Chair absolutely refuses to budge to improve her own and the board’s work beyond going through the motions
In the first case, eventually this is for the board to decide, whether to change their own composition or change the CEO. Both scenarios will lead to shake up and cultural change.

In the second case, a wise person once said – the CEO should just be patient because the chair will change more often than the CEO. Perhaps. But then the next chair could be dictatorial or even more hands-off.

There is always a solution. Potential steps will vary; institutions are not cookie cutters. How beautiful it is, though, when internal change happens for the better and a well functioning duo of chair and CEO becomes the standard at the nonprofit, no matter who holds these posts.

Susan Wobst, through swSOLUTIONS, works with boards, CEOs, and senior staff to strengthen governance, leadership, strategy, and programs. Contact her at swobst@verizon.net, or 617-448-5301.
December 2011

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