The relationship between the board and its chief executive is critical to the health of the organization. Ideally, this should be a relationship of co-leadership, one in which both parties are able to fully engage their talents and skills to lead the organization. Getting to this ideal state can be a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth taking on because of this relationship’s impact on the organization’s ability to thrive.
Start with mutual understanding: Co-leadership starts with a clear understanding of who does what in the organization. Generally stated, the board attends to the “what” and “why” and the executive attends to the “how.” Further clarifying this by ensuring that board members understand their legal duties and fiduciary responsibilities enables the board to better perform its role in the organization.
Just as the board must understand its role, it must be clear about its expectations for its chief executive. These are outlined broadly in the form of a job description and then, more specifically, in written annual performance goals based upon the organization’s strategic plan. Clear goals are always specific and measurable, which helps ensure mutual understanding and agreement. In addition, goals must be attainable, given the resources available, and realistic in light of current organizational and environmental conditions.
Trust and respect: Co-leadership operates in a spirit of trust and mutual respect. Operating in a spirit of trust means that the board and the chief executive are empowered to act within the purview of their organizational responsibilities, and each are provided with the necessary tools to do so. Some boards limit the power of the chief executive to perform even the most routine tasks in the organization.
This overreaching control and demonstration of lack of professional respect for the chief executive turns the role into one of an administrative assistant to the board, who is able to act only with permission and has no real power to perform independently. This approach is debilitating to the organization’s abilities to thrive. By the same token, a chief executive who holds the board at a distance from the organization indicates a lack of respect for the role and capabilities of the board. This distance and constriction of organizational information erodes board engagement and weakens the board’s ability to do its job.
Communication: Co-leadership requires regular, open and timely communication between the chief executive and the board. Typically, the primary communication channel is between the board chair and the chief executive. Open communication between these two leaders is a critical factor in the board and staff relationship and sets the tone for the information flow between the chief executive and the entire board.
To perform its role, the full board should receive financial updates, any standard organizational metrics, organizational news and other pertinent information about the organization at least on a monthly basis. If there’s a brewing crisis or breaking good news about the organization, the board chair should be updated and determine when and how to inform the full board.
Focus on the mission: Focus on the organization’s mission should be at the center of the relationship between the board and its chief executive. While approaches to mission-based decisions can differ among leaders, having mission considerations at the center of this relationship provides the sense of shared purpose that can bridge the challenges of clarifying roles and responsibilities, personality differences or differences in working styles.
People work and volunteer for nonprofit organizations for a myriad of reasons; for an organization to fulfill its promise and purpose, personal consideration and motivations must take a back seat to the organization’s mission and ensuring its health and effectiveness.
The relationship between the board and its chief executive is a strong predictor of an organization’s ability to thrive and do its work effectively. Developing a co-leadership approach allows the organization to benefit from the strengths and skills of all its leaders. Coming together around the mission and defining roles and responsibilities in a trusting and respectful manner with clear communication can help the organization develop and maintain this ideal state of co-leadership that will strengthen and grow the organization.