I hear it all the time – “My board chair doesn’t get it!” and “Our executive director doesn’t know how to involve us!” The dynamic between the nonprofit executive director and the board chair can indeed be very interesting! The executive director is hired as an expert in the nonprofit field, and the volunteer serving as Chair supervises and evaluates the executive director’s performance. The chair typically rotates out after a year or two, and many times is not an expert in the sector. So how the heck is that supposed to work?
We live in a world where there is more than enough conflict. Let’s work toward peaceful partnerships when we can. The board chair doesn’t get to back off because they feel bad for the poor, overworked executive director. Or keep quiet when they aren’t sure certain assumptions make sense any more. And executives don’t get to keep dedicated volunteers in the dark because they think they won’t understand anyway. Or be too polite to hold “the boss” accountable.
You are part of a partnership that is responsible for serving the community, so focus and work things out.
Let’s dig a little deeper – here are 5 steps to a successful partnership:
1. Frame Expectations Early: These relationships don’t have to be awkward. Outline the way you like to work with each other up front. Over lunch one day, ask about how the other person likes to communicate, for example. I had a board chair who liked to meet in person once a month; the next Board Chair wanted a weekly email summary on key points. And go further—talk about roles. They are significantly different from each other and you’ll want to be aligned around these expectations. Talk about what it means to have each other’s back when handling a sensitive or politically charged issue. What’s the best approach to challenging situations?
2. Ask, Ask Again, then Listen: Talk about the current board culture and how it’s working. Is everyone’s voice heard, or is there serious group think? Is the board engaged, or just going through the motions? Let it be known that you expect the work to be driven by the strategic plan and discuss how to monitor it. Ask about what concerns the other person has, or what challenges the organization is facing. It’s important that board members and staff understand how others view the current reality and how well-positioned they are to move forward into a thriving future. This type of dialogue can lead to great strategic conversations!.
3. Remember – They Are People Too: Any strong relationship is built on trust and respect. The executive director and board chair will face some challenges together, as well as share in wonderful achievements. It’s appropriate to know what each other likes to do outside the boardroom. Whatever your personal interests, it feels good when someone asks about those things, right? Maybe you’re a weekend warrior, or proud parent, or musician – it’s natural to swap stories with someone you’ll be counting on so closely. Of course, you don’t have to be BFFs and pal around every weekend to earn the respect of a colleague. They will give you signals about how much information they are comfortable sharing, so be observant.
4. Focus on Results: As the relationships grow, opportunities flourish. The executive’s evaluation is no longer a period of tension or surprise, but rather a chance for the board to look forward and support a dedicated employee. And the executive director isn’t anxious about holding the Board Chair accountable, because the goals have been set, trust has developed, there is open communication and now it’s just business. Set up a board evaluation system that removes subjectivity and celebrate the wins! Unleash the talent of the board and enjoy a highly engaged and productive team that brings the mission alive. Set the bar high and help each other rise to the occasion.
5. Check Your Mindset: “They” aren’t the problem. Have you ever thought, “I can’t believe they won’t do such and such?” Look, no one wakes up in the morning and decides to be the worst volunteer or employee ever. The board chair has dedicated countless hours and resources to the mission work of your organization. The executive has chosen this path as a career. They trust you to do good work and want to work alongside you. You don’t get to presume they are stubborn, or lazy, or too busy. When they are well-equipped with information and tools and feel valued, they will rise to the occasion. So ask them what they need and get on with it.
Finally, all this isn’t even about you. It’s about the people in the community who are counting on you to make the changes that matter for them. So focus on these 5 things, strengthen your relationship and do amazing things. You can’t afford to be a mediocre partner.
For more on how to build a high performing board, check out the book “The Impact Triangle.”