The Nonprofit Chair and Executive Director/CEO Relationship: Collaborating for Success

by Oct 12, 2021

As with any new relationship, it is important to get the dynamic between the Board Chair and Executive Director/CEO right from the beginning. This rapport is the key to successful mutual Board leadership.

Nonprofit Executive Directors often have a revolving door of new Chairs, and it is hard to be prepared for the personal leadership style of each. Board Chairs come with successful careers and diverse experiences, so for Executive Directors, adapting to how they lead and how they seek to provide oversight can be challenging. Having invested the time to understand and align with one leader, an Executive Director may need to be open to a completely different way of operating with his/her successor to help avoid pitfalls.

From my past experiences of such challenges, I thought I’d share some recommendations on how such transitions can be facilitated, and how the beginning of each new relationship can be made productive:

1. Ensure that you have depth in your leadership succession plans for future Chair candidates. This preparation will enable you to build relationships and understand working styles with potential incoming Chairs, helping smooth transitions and fast-tracking each change over time.

Simultaneously, potential Chairs can evaluate how the organization operates, whether they fit, and start to plan how to work effectively together to support the mission of the organization.

However, DO NOT WORRY if you don’t have this opportunity upfront: you can still get it right.

2. The crux to building a strong working relationship is communication, communication, communication. We all have our idiosyncrasies, and mutually identifying these will help to map out the give and take that makes a relationship work.

There are many different leadership styles, and it will be important to determine what you both need in a flexible and honest dialog. Understanding the seven leadership styles: Autocratic, Authoritative, Pacesetting, Democratic, Coaching, Affirmative, and Laissez-faire, should be in your toolkit, and you should be ready to pull out what is needed.

Since most leaders tend to favor a particular style, an Executive Director transitioning from an Authoritative to a Laissez-faire Chair will need to put in a lot of hard work and over-communicate to set up effective parameters for interaction. This is not easy, but if you are open and receptive, you will be able to understand each other and agree on what you each need for success.

Decide how much and when you are going to communicate, and overdo it initially. Determining a schedule that works for the two of you will help you to be on the same page and broadly signal this common base to the organization.

After 6 years of working as Chair with the Executive Director of a national organization, we still talk every two weeks. We have clear signals of when she needs me to drop everything to help her on an issue, and equally when she is too crunched to talk. She has trust in me to admit challenges. The organization comes before either of our egos!

3. Ok, so you have worked out the kinks of how to work together – now what? How do you move forward? It is important to discuss your personal goals for yourself, the Board, and the organization. How do your goals align and how do they differ? You want to have goals that challenge each other so that you may grow and be better for your organization. This is the process of honing your respective leadership skills by coaching each other and establishing your figurative rulebook. Discuss your roles and responsibilities. What do you need from each other? Remember to stay in your lane unless invited to jump on for the ride. Remember the Executive Director manages, and the Board Chair/Board provides oversight.

4. By now, you are on a smooth path. What comes next? As a Board Chair, you want to ensure that the Board is operating effectively and has a good relationship with the Executive Director. Make sure that you provide support for the Executive Director to do the job. Allow time at Board meetings and between meetings for appropriate interactions, but avoid creating a time sink for the Executive Director or overstepping the oversight/operations divide. If you are having your meeting on Zoom, make sure that there are other opportunities for one-on-one calls and communications to develop rich individual relationships. When possible, have in-person meetings to find common interests in areas of the organization’s mission, vision, and values.

5. OH NO… you hit a roadblock. Communication breaks down and you are upset about a situation that occurred during a Board meeting. You both overstepped your agreed boundaries, forgot your rulebook, and mutually felt frustration and betrayal. The entire Board will be aware of the tension.

It happens. There are a couple of options:

First, go back to your rulebook, review the policies and procedures of the organization, and see if you can work it out together. If not, go to your governance chair and ask for help. You all care deeply for the organization and it is a matter of working through relationship difficulties, not issuing ultimatums, and jumping to organizational change. Return to the excellent communication you established early on and get help from your Board. You will have a stronger relationship if you work together through the challenging moments.

At Almora, we have coached Chairs and Executive Directors to develop strong communication, establish roles and responsibilities, and develop a unique rulebook that works for them. When hurdles arise, we have helped re-establish the lines of communication and effective operating solutions. The Executive Director and Chair relationship are crucial for a successful organization and Board. Start early in building mutual trust, stay connected for success, and treat hiccups as opportunities to collaborate and to strengthen your relationship.