Building an Effective Board Chair-CEO Partnership
A report titled “The Effective Chair-CEO Relationship” published by the the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance (now Yale Center for Corporate Governance) identified three major characteristics of an effective board chair-CEO working relationship.
- Good chemistry, which is about the direct interpersonal relationship between the board chair and CEO.
- A clear framework, which involves key working arrangements.
- A supportive context, which includes conditions helpful to a successful relationship.
Because the board chair and CEO are the top leadership team for the organization, they share responsibility not only for board effectiveness and efficiency, but for ensuring the long-term health, viability, and success of the organization. A strong, effective working relationship will not only make serving in these roles more enjoyable, but it will improve the pair’s ability to provide effective leadership in advancing the nonprofit’s mission. Following is a more detailed exploration of what these characteristics might look like in action.
While it would be wonderful if every board chair and CEO naturally liked and appreciated each other and had already built a good interpersonal relationship, that is not always the case. Inevitably, there are style differences and personality conflicts; in many cases, trust needs to be built. Being willing and able to discuss these differences and conflicts goes a long way toward building the trust and understanding needed to create an effective working relationship.
Intentional and effective communications, requiring frequent contact and open and ongoing dialogue, helps create an environment that is conducive to sharing and learning together and building confidence in each other. Two hallmarks of good communication are reciprocity and consideration–keeping each other well informed, avoiding surprises, and assuming good intent.
Both the board chair and the CEO should be able to set aside their egos and engage authentically with each other, sharing hopes, expectations, and concerns without fear of judgment or that what they say will come back to haunt them. Each partner should be willing to listen to and learn from the other.
Ideally, both partners should understand and appreciate the similarities and differences in their styles and personal preferences and how they might complement–or duplicate–each other. This could involve sharing and discussing results of a personality inventory, such as the MBTI, or conflict or resistance styles, which can be gleaned from instruments administered at workshops or by coaches. Each partner might share respective preferences and then together they can discuss the implications for how they might work together. They should talk candidly about how they can tap into each other’s strengths, take advantage of opposite preferences to complement each other, and overcome any blind spots or deficiencies that might exist when both are very similar. It might even be appropriate to bring in a coach or other professional who can provide an outside perspective or interventions that can help the partners create the chemistry that will enable them to work more effectively together.
An important caution here is that, while the relationship might be close, it should not become a personal friendship. This needs to be a professional relationship that focuses on the work the two need to accomplish together on behalf of the board and the organization. The board chair remains part of the board that is responsible for hiring and evaluating the CEO. The boundaries between organizational and personal issues need to be clear and maintained so that a personal friendship does not get in the way of the work that needs to be done or the honesty and candor that each needs to bring to the relationship.
Probably the most important part of the framework that will guide how the board chair and CEO work together is a shared purpose and vision of what success looks like–for their partnership, the Board, the organization, and what they hope to accomplish together.
Once their shared purpose and vision of success are aligned, they should focus on how they will work together to accomplish that purpose. This might include establishing formal practices and procedures, as well as personal practices that minimize interpersonal conflicts. These might address how the partners will divide up the work, collaborate on developing and managing the Board agenda, deal with major or material decisions, communicate with and support each other, etc. It canbe very helpful to document these agreements in writing to ensure a shared understanding of their agreements and to help them evaluate how well these agreements are working, modifying them if needed.
While the board chair and CEO might be the key leadership of an organization, they can’t do it alone. In order to succeed, they need others to do their part, which requires a talented executive team and a strong, supportive board. All board members and staff need to be credible, committed, and engaged. In addition, the culture of the board and the organization need to be open, transparent, and supportive of the board chair and CEO’s vision and the organization’s mission.
Building this culture and empowering board and staff to act in ways that are aligned with the mission and vision requires keeping them appropriately informed and involving them in important decisions. So, the board chair and CEO also need to consider how they will communicate with the larger group and keep them in the loop. The no surprises rule is equally important here and the board chair and CEO should never hide information from the rest of the board.
Flexibility is another important aspect of culture that can support an effective board chair and CEO relationship, especially flexibility in negotiating roles. As Mary Hiland points out, “the process of give and take, working it out together, was characteristic of the strongest partnerships… In high-trust relationships, the structure of roles and responsibilities was negotiated and flowed from the individuals’ aligned purpose, not from what ‘should be.’”
Board chairs and CEOs need to continuously and deliberately work on their relationship and remain flexible in how they structure their work together. They should tap into each other’s strengths and allow each other to bring their own personal best without preconceived notions about what that might look like.This requires building trust and creating a collaborative working relationship that enables each to understand and support the other as they work together to advance the mission of the nonprofit they both serve.
Hiland, Mary L. Effective Board Chair-Executive Director Relationships: Not About Roles! Nonprofit Quarterly, Winter 2006.
Walton, Elise. (2011). The Effective Chair-CEO Relationship: Insight from the Boardroom. Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance, Yale School of Management, New Haven, CT.
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