Board/Executive Director Relationships

July 8, 2013

Relationships can be challenging. Nowhere is that more true than the relationship between the executive director, the board president and the rest of the board. When it is all working, life can be beautiful; and when it isn’t, life becomes rather dissatisfying for everyone. Worse yet, there is a deleterious effect on the organization’s delivery of its mission work.

Despite how important this lynchpin relationship is, too few organizations pay it any attention, let alone special attention—until it blows up. Then it is frequently too late. So, what should a good executive director and board do to get the most out of their relationship?

1. The relationship of board and executive director is not limited to, but often has its focus solely on the relationship between the board president and the executive director. And while this is not the only relationship that the executive director has with board members (discussed below), this relationship does, quite often, personify the relationship s/he has with the board. There are several things that should be done to try to maximize this relationship.

• Boards must start paying better attention to who they are putting in the position of board president. Far too often, the board president position is filled without careful thought. It is someone’s “turn” to be president, or there was no one else, or someone finally caved, or some other non-strategic method landed a person in the position of president. While there are so many things wrong with any one of these scenarios—in fact, with any process that isn’t strategic and tied to the priorities of the strategic plan and the organization’s lifecycle–one key thing wrong is that the considerations of the executive director were not taken into account. Please note: I am not saying that the executive director should pick the board president. I am, however, saying that the executive director’s opinions and assessment do need to be taken into account. Can the executive director work well with the candidate? Is the candidate trustworthy? Does the candidate have what is needed in the presidency position for the length of the term? Has the candidate been previously accessible and accountable? Is the candidate open minded? And more. With the wrong person in this position, the relationship of executive director and board president, and, therefore, the relationship of executive director and board, is damned before it even gets off the starting block.

• The executive director and board president must have regular, standing meeting appointments set in stone in their respective calendars. Whether this is weekly or semi-monthly doesn’t matter. Whether it is face-to-face, by phone or through electronic means doesn’t matter. Whether there are a few times over the course of a year when it doesn’t happen, doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is regularly scheduled and protected time for the two to get together and talk. It can be to talk about what’s working and not; concerns the board has about organizational performance or the executive director’s performance; concerns the executive director has about the board’s performance, the organization’s future or an immediate crisis. It can be just to shoot the breeze and come to understand the other’s style, mannerisms and how s/he likes to handle conflict. At times, it can just be about building the relationship and getting comfortable with one another. It is there to solidify the relationship, keep communications open and regular, troubleshoot, and create a team that will help push the mission forward.

2. The time challenge in this relationship really lies on the executive director’s side. For this relationship to be its strongest, the executive director must have a good relationship with every board member, not just the board president. We’ve all heard the expression, “one rotten apple spoils the bunch.” So, the executive director must have one-on-one “meetings”—coffee, breakfast, lunch—with each and every board member at least twice a year (in addition to all the interactions that come up in the course of doing business). The purpose of these meetings? Easy: relationship building. It can be priceless when needed! It also serves as data gathering for who amongst the group would be good board president material down the road. These meetings, too, should not be overlooked or pushed aside to make room for something “more important.” For the success of the mission, there is little that is more important than a strong board/executive director relationship.

3. As with any relationship, this partnership needs to be balanced, something too few board/executive director relationships are. In a healthy relationship, the leader/follower dynamic shifts with the situation. In some things, one-half leads and the other half follows; other situations, the reverse. (As a friend said to me recently, “I often think it is why I got married—so I wouldn’t have to fix toilets!” Clearly, until it is time to call the plumber, the balance of power when it comes to toilet fixing rests with her husband.) And sometimes, there can be leading in lock step. When there isn’t that shifting in the power balance, when there isn’t the handing off and exchange of leading and following, there is trouble at home! Monitoring this balance is crucial; correcting an identified imbalance even more so.
Far too often, we see boards overly dependent upon the executive director—read: the executive director is pulling the strings. While many times we will hear board members applaud this situation, saying it indicates a very competent executive director, more often it indicates a weak, ineffective and/or lazy board. It needs to be corrected. The reverse happens, too: an executive director only responds to the demands and directions of the board, and may even be viewed by the board as its minion, as opposed to its partner. Neither situation is healthy for the organization or, more important, its ability to do a really good job at delivering on its mission. (And both are set ups for a failed executive transition, when the time comes.) These are examples of red flags that the power balance is out of kilter and needs to be righted.

4. The board must conduct an annual (and, yes, annual means once a year, not whenever the board gets around to it, feels like it, decides it is necessary because there appears to be a problem, etc.) formal performance review of the executive director. This is not an option. And, yes, it is a key component in a strong board/executive director relationship. For starters, it is pointing out one area where the balance of power doesn’t shift: the executive director is always the direct report of the board. There may be times, as noted above, when it looks like the board is reporting to the executive director, in that s/he is leading and the board following. But at the end of every day, the board is the boss of the executive director. And no matter how cooperative and shared the leadership is, no matter how collegial the relationship is, the board is always the boss. With all of the powers of a boss—supervising (not micromanaging), suggesting performance improvement, rewarding and, ultimately, and if necessary, firing the executive director.

In this delicate dance of a relationship, it is important that an executive director always understand what it is that the board thinks s/he’s doing well, where improvement is needed and where there is downright concern. These are some of the things that a board president should be discussing in the regular meetings with the executive director so that there are no surprises at the end of the review year. The executive director has the opportunity to work on the mole hills so they don’t become mountains; boards don’t sit and stew and then suddenly explode by firing an unsuspecting executive director. And overthrows by a small band of unhappy board members who can persuade the rest of the board of terrible, undocumented things being done by an awful executive director are another reason to have those semiannual meetings with board members.

5. As suggested above, a healthy board/executive director relationship is a partnership. An executive director and a board should share the same ultimate goal: to do the best job possible at pushing forward the mission and serving clients. (If this is not the case, there is a very, big problem that needs to be addressed immediately.) Each partner has its own approach and sets of responsibilities to achieve the mutually shared goal; and when each is doing what it is supposed to, the partnership is at its strongest. When either or both halves see the other as an adversary, an obstacle, something that has to be controlled, etc., the model is broken and the ultimate goal is forsaken. The important thing to remember, and yet is all too often forgotten, is that egos do not belong in the board/executive director partnership. The partnership exists for the sole purpose of allowing clients to experience the implementation of the organization’s mission.

6. Finally, there is a small, new trend afloat that should be stopped immediately: the use of executive sessions just to “talk without the executive director there.” What? Yes, executive sessions should be used to discuss things that relate to the executive director: compensation, performance review, a complaint lodged by an employee or a fellow board member. But other than that, what on earth could, or should, the board be talking about without having the executive director present? Nothing breeds mistrust, suspicion and anxiety faster than that!

Laura Otten is the Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. She is also a faculty member of the Dodge Technical Assistance Initiative. Find out more about our nonprofit capacity building workshops here.