For CEOs — Six Characteristics of Good CEO/Board Relationships
The title may be Director, Executive Director, Executive Secretary, Executive Vice President, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), or something else like Exalted Ruler. Whatever they’re called, the lead staff person for your nonprofit has a special responsibility within the organization — to work with and be responsive to the organization’s board of directors. We’ve listed six tips to help this person make the most of the board/executive partnership:
- Keep your promises — Like the commercials say, “People judge you by the words you use.” They also judge you on how your actions and follow-through match those words. Whether it’s a promise to provide materials, a commitment to fiscal responsibility, or anything else, the principle is the same. Make manageable promises and keep those promises. Important corollary to this rule: your staff’s promises are ultimately your responsibility.
- Communicate with consistency — be sure that your messages to each board member match. Inconsistency breeds confusion and, ultimately, mistrust. Board members will talk to each other and to other people; make sure they get the same full, truthful message.
- Engender trust — the board/CEO partnership is based on trust. Be careful and pay attention. If trust is breached, it’s almost impossible to rebuild.
- Style matters — As the CEO, you’re the professional executive. Learn to identify others’ learning, communication, and management styles. Once you’ve learned these styles, accommodate them whenever feasible. The best and longest-serving CEOs have learned to roll with the punches and serve their boards in the way that makes them feel the most productive and useful. For example, not all boards love memoranda and staff reports loaded with detail. Some prefer verbal and/or graphic presentations. Some boards prefer strong policy direction from the CEO, while others like to take a stronger hand in formulating policy alternatives. Don’t get locked into one style or one preferred method of communication — you may be isolating yourself from your board.
- Practice transparency — Hidden motives, secret agendas, or playing one political faction against another will often come back to harm you and your organization. The “need” for deception is a symptom of serious problems in an organization. Avoid the problems and the deception. Be known as a “straight shooter.”
- Strive to lead, not manage — One of the best nonprofit CEOs we’ve worked with was tasked by her board with spending 75% of her time on strategic and visionary work, and only 25% on day-to-day operations and management. Leaders delegate authority as well as responsibility, and leaders seek to include others in developing and implementing strategic vision for the organizations they serve.