The BOARD-ED PARTNERSHIP: A Critical Organizational Balance

“The Board-ED Partnership is the greatest determinant of organizational health,” says Joan Garry in her blog. This relationship cannot be ignored or taken for granted. It is guided and led by the relationship between the Board Chair and the Executive Director.

As Jenny and I have seen dozens of times in our ten years of consulting, dysfunctional Board-ED relationships are common and are often developed when there is a lack of transparency and trust. The Board Chair, Board members, and the Executive Director need to have honest, open, direct conversations about this and, honestly, all organizational issues. These conversations need to occur primarily in the context of a Board or committee meeting, not amongst a few folks in the parking lot or while out for a drink. These clandestine conversations are what often lead to board-related drama and dysfunction.

1) The first step in avoiding this scenario is a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, something every board member should get training about during their onboard process. When everyone understands their roles, responsibilities, and level of authority and power, it eliminates many problems before they even get started.

2) The second step to a good Board-ED relationship is the selection of the Board Chair. The Chair should be selected strategically and carefully. This should be someone who cares passionately about the organization, but also someone who respects the ED and other Board members, has strong facilitation skills, and knows the difference between governance and management. Merely asking who wants to be Chair and selecting the person who doesn’t step back is a recipe for disaster. Board members should be groomed for leadership from day one and a clear line of succession to the Chair-ship established. There should never be any doubt who will be the next Chair. Term limits for Board members and Board officers are also very important. No one should ever serve as Chair for more than two consecutive years.

3) Build respect between the ED and the Board Chair.  They must value one another’s time, position, expertise, and challenges; they need to avoid the scenario in which they are judging each other harshly and/or talking about each other to colleagues. The best Eds and Chairs work together, and often with the Executive Committee or Governance Committee, to set the agenda for the Board meetings as well as the Board year. They typically talk to each other regularly and meet consistently. The Board Chair does not think of themselves as the ED’s “boss”. The Board Chair and ED are partners. The Board Chair respects that this is the ED’s full time job and that they are the expert on the organization. Likewise, the ED respects that the Board Chair is a volunteer who is giving their time to the organization and that they bring tremendous skill to the table.

4) A good Board Chair understands it is their job is to run the Board, not the organization. The Board Chair’s powers are limited, if not non-existent. Only the full Board can evaluate and hire the ED, enter into contracts or agreements that encumber the organization, pass the budget or strategic plan, etc. The Board is only the Board when it is together, with quorum, and in session. This is the only time the Board has power, and the Chair’s job is to guide the Board in understanding and use of that power.

5) By the same token, the ED runs the organization. The ED partners with the Board and staff to create the strategic plan and then implements it with the staff. The Board evaluates the ED’s performance based on the mutually agreed-upon outcomes of this plan. Only the ED can hire and evaluate staff.

6) The Executive Director should spend considerable time managing and staffing the Board. Many Eds complain about their Board members and their level of engagement, strategic decision-making, and fundraising involvement. But the Board of Directors is only as good as its Executive Director. A good ED also cultivates positive relationships with Board members and is engaged in most aspects of Board’s work. The ED knows the strengths of each Board member and ensures that member’s strengths and time are being used effectively to benefit both the organization and the Board member. None of this is easy, and it often takes years to build the Board your organization needs and deserves, but it is critical work and the ED plays a critical role in its execution.

The Board-ED Partnership is challenging for everyone in the scenario. It takes tremendous time, patience, people skills, and fortitude. However, any scenario other than balanced partnership leads to unhealthy, dysfunctional, and sometimes organization-destroying behavior and decisions.

If you would like help with your Board Chair-ED relationship or any other governance issues, Jenny and I are here to help! Both of us are Certified BoardSource Governance Consultants.