Elements of a Healthy Board-CEO Relationship
As in a healthy marriage, the cooperation of both partners in the relationship between chief executive officer and board is vital. This is a perennial issue, and as recently as a few months ago, the Red Cross demonstrated that its own boardCEO relationship had lost some vitality. By flouting certain taboos, such as board contradicting CEO at a press event and other public relations snafus, the Red Cross marred its image. Though one probably cant attribute all its recent woes to poor boardCEO relationships, one can at least be sure the tension did not contribute to a healthy resolution of the Red Crosss problems. But a strong leadership team can propel a foundation toward success.
First, the CEO must have confidence in the board. He or she must be assured that board members have the best interest of the foundation at heart and are willing to work to achieve the foundations goals. At the same time, the board must be secure in the knowledge that the CEO is running the foundations operations well and is doing everything he or she can to enable the foundation to grow and flourish.
An imbalance of power can undermine the authority of both board and staff and diminish staff morale. And any number of problems can cause cracks in the substance of the boardchief executive relationship. Many times such problems do not come from incompetence or ill will but from either board members or the chief executives overstepping their roles or not fulfilling their responsibilities.
Several things can maintain or establish trust.
If youre the CEO, strong leadership does not mean dominating the board or stripping it of its important responsibilities. Strong chief executives serve as a liaison between staff and board and share their concerns with each other. They are skilled at conflict resolution and model a positive, constructive attitude that values the contributions of all board members. Strong leadership means being proactive and leading change instead of reacting and treading water. Strong leaders facilitate the ideas of others by asking good questions, and they encourage regular self-assessment.
The CEO can provide the board with the knowledge and education it needs to govern well through an orientation and periodic training. Remember that good governance practices are learnedcontinually keeping the board up to speed on innovations by sharing articles or sending the members to seminars helps them understand their responsibilities. The significant time involved in doing this is well invested.
If youre on the board, strong participation does not mean steamrolling over the chief executives plans and ideas. The board should make sure the chief executive has the freedom and authority to carry out the strategic goals it has developed with him or her. Evaluate the chief executives performance annually, so he or she can know which areas need improvement.
Providing clear and realistic job descriptions for the chief executiveand for board members as wellgoes a long way.
Two BoardSource publications. For more on this topic, consider The Board-Savvy CEO, by Douglas C. Eadie, National Center for Nonprofit Boards, 2001; and Creating Strong BoardStaff Partnerships, Karen Simmons and Gary J. Stern, NCNB, 1999. To order, visit www.boardsource.org/bookstore/index.shtml.
Two new board e-mail lists. The Council on Foundations is sponsoring two new e-mail lists specifically for board members of community or family foundations. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.
Board Web pages. Information about classes, conferences, books, articles or other items related to governance or board membership can be found at the Council on Foundations Web site, www.cof.org. Click on the department called Governing Board Programs.
Sandra R. Hughes is executive governance consultant at BoardSource (formerly known as the National Center for Nonprofit Boards) in Washington, DC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.