Building a Strong Board Chair/Executive Director Partnership

No relationship is more important to the health of your nonprofit than the one between the Board Chair and the Executive Director, as each plays a critical role in your organization’s ability to engage its stakeholders and meet its mission. As a result, it is essential that your board and staff leaders view their relationship as a partnership and work towards developing a strong relationship that helps your nonprofit achieve its goals.

What follows are a few key elements to help build a successful Board Chair/Executive Director partnership:

Communicate and meet regularly

Board Chairs and Executive Directors need to be in regular communication, in both formal and informal ways. In the early stages of building their relationship with their Board Chairs, its probably not a bad idea for Executive Directors to over-communicate to ensure transparency, as over time the right amount of communication, and on what topics, will evolve. Schedule regular meetings to discuss progress on the strategic plan, internal and external issues facing the organization, board development and engagement, committee work, and meeting agendas.

Follow the plan

Use your strategic plan as the roadmap for where you’re hoping to move the organization, and work together to drill your strategic goals into action plans and engagement opportunities for both the board and the staff. Keep the plan and its short and long-term goals active as the framework and directional guidepost for your work together as board and staff partners.

Build trust

The best nonprofits build a strong mission-based ownership culture on both the board and staff levels, which creates a sense of energy and excitement towards the work of the organization. Creating that culture starts at the top, so its essential that board and staff leaders invest the time necessary to build a strong and trusting relationship. The most effective way to build that trust is to always be honest with each other, to be willing to share your vulnerabilities, and to put service to mission at the forefront of your partnership. Think of the Board Chair/Executive Director relationship as the safe space in which to problem solve the most important issues facing the organization.

Hold each other accountable

A key element to successful personal and professional relationships is accountability, so be willing to hold each other accountable. Do this with the mission at the center of the equation, since staff and board leaders are there to serve that mission. Accountability at the top can build a powerful cultural norm, because if the Board Chair and Executive Director demonstrate accountability towards one another, it sets the stage for an accountable culture to develop throughout the organization.

Consider working with an executive coach

It can be helpful for the Board Chair, the Executive Director or the leadership team to bring on an executive coach to help them look at the organization critically and assist them in defining a plan of action that is most effective for the organization. This can be particularly effective immediately after a leadership transition, or when an inexperienced Executive Director or Board Chair comes on board. The perspective and experience your team gains from this process can produce a significant return from a relatively modest investment.

Building a culture of shared leadership and accountability takes time and effort and can often take leaders out of their comfort zones. All the same, a commitment towards such a goal and an investment of time and effort in working towards that end is what nonprofit leadership is all about. Make that commitment to each other and the organization’s goals as the first step in the process; it can yield remarkable results for your nonprofit’s mission.

Scott Schnapp authored this blog post in his new role as a Consulting Partner here at Starboard. A full bio for Scott is available on the Starboard Leadership Consulting website, and you can contact him directly at [email protected].