’ve often said that a productive relationship between the board chair and executive director is like a strong marriage.
You know each other well, have mutual respect, don’t have secrets, and treat each other’s quirks with empathy. Because of this strong foundation, you are also in the unique position to gently challenge and help each other grow. And like a marriage, strong relationships between the board chair and executive director don’t just happen. They need a significant investment of time and energy in the beginning. And then they need ongoing cultivation and care.
Getting a new board chair every few years is a simple fact of life for most nonprofit executive directors. And each time, the executive director needs to play a leadership role in building a strong relationship with the new board chair. This blog post outlines 3 steps for onboarding your new board chair. It also provides a sample worksheet to structure the process.
Step 1: Agree on an onboarding process
Meet with your new board chair to discuss the onboarding process before he or she steps into the position. This first meeting will likely take two hours and should:
A – Determine how often you will meet initially (ideal: weekly)
B – Set a date and time for the meeting
C – Discuss expectations about after-hours availability and responsiveness
D – Determine the best way to share difficult news with each other
Step 2: Agree on board roles and staff roles
It is not always obvious which tasks the board and the executive director are each responsible for. And even if your board chair has served as an officer on other boards, their expectations may not be in alignment with your board’s practices. So it’s best to start a new board chair relationship by reviewing common tasks.
The attached document (see below) is a worksheet for the chief executive and the board chair to complete together. It lists over 55 specific organizational tasks to examine. I recommend identifying if the responsible party for each task is the board chair (board), executive director (staff), or shared. Here are some examples:
- Is disseminating the board meeting materials a staff role or a board role?
- Who can sign contracts on behalf of the organization?
- Which person should counsel board members who are not meeting expectations?
Step 3: Ensure there is an agenda for each weekly meeting between the board chair and executive director
Weekly meetings are an opportunity to coordinate shared work, build a relationship, and think strategically about the organization’s future.
Half the meeting should be spent updating each other on board governance and organizational management issues. The other half of the meeting should be dedicated to one fiduciary, strategic, or generative question. These questions are designed to deepen your relationship, align your strategy, and pre-empt difficult situations. See the document at the end of this post for more ideas for these questions. A few examples are:
- Five years from today, what will our key constituents consider the most important legacy of the current board?
- What if staff or contractors approach the board chair or other board members to complain about the executive director?
- What should the executive director evaluation look like?
If you and your board chair meet for one hour each week, you will have spent over 24-hours together in just the first six months! And this investment will result in incredible dividends for your relationship, your board, and your organization.
For some more ideas about building a strong relationship, check out what these executive directors do to promote their relationships with their board chairs.
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Why I am writing about this
Building a strong and effective working relationship with the board chair is one of the most critical factors to an executive director’s success. And a successful chief executive partnered with a strong board can propel a nonprofit to achieve its mission. In my coaching work with nonprofit executive directors, I sometimes work with them to resolve difficult relationships with the board chair. If you’re an executive director interested in coaching, reach out to me!
Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful: