Learn the Four S’s of the CEO-Board Relationship

By J. Patrick Traynor

Last month, we talked about the importance of investing in the right CEO to lead your charity and, whenever possible, growing the one you already have. They account for about 60 percent of the performance variance in an organization, after all.

This month, we’re going to get into some more specific ways that your board can support and grow your charity’s leader.

1. Support the CEO.

The most immediate steps a board can take in developing a great CEO are to capture and examine all the things that are currently being done to engage, challenge, and grow the nonprofit’s current leader. Here are some questions your board should be asking:

  1. Do we regularly reach out to visit with our CEO?
  2. Do we regularly invite our CEO to to present at our service clubs, places of business, and other community events?
  3. Do we keep our CEO informed of relevant current affairs in the community?
  4. Do we annually review our CEO’s performance and determine a competitive compensation package?
  5. Are we engaging our CEO in a strategic dialogue regarding the organization’s short- and long-term goals?

Each board member serves as a distinct multiplier based on their individual knowledge, expertise, networks, and diverse perspective. When you have a High Impact Board, it’s like having 10-15 additional brains and sets of eyes looking out for the organization’s best interests.

2. Sync with the CEO.

The single most important relationship within any nonprofit is the one between the board chair and the CEO. When these two key players are performing at peak, good things happen for them and the organization.

According to board expert Richard Hossack, “When the CEO-board chair relationship is strong, the organization benefits from having twice as much talent at the top, each playing a distinct leadership role and each supporting the other.

“In turn, the board benefits by having leaders whose primary focus is on building the board into an effective team capable of guiding everything from routine business to major crises.”

We recommend the CEO and board chair spend regular time together to develop trust and an unwavering commitment to the organization’s mission. Together, they are the chief cheerleaders of the organization.

Here are some ways to build the board chair and CEO relationship:

  1. Sync up weekly.
  2. Review and plan board meeting agendas.
  3. Draft annual board- and committee-planning calendars.
  4. Plan brief board education opportunities.
  5. Co-develop an annual goals- and performance-evaluation system.

Ultimately, the board chair and CEO should aim to create the best conditions possible for the full board to get to know each other, communicate, and thrive.

3. Sit with the CEO (and the rest of the board).

A High Impact Board is like a great rock band. Your CEO is the lead singer, and your board chair is the lead guitarist. And if you have a strong dynamic duo in these two leadership positions, your nonprofit is officially in the game. But a lead singer and lead guitarist does not a band make.

There are a whole lot of other great musicians who complete a band, and all have different gifts and talents. This energetic blend creates the richness and diversity of a High Impact Board.

Your leader should spend time with the rest of the board as well. We recommend your  CEO regularly carves out one-on-one time with each board member to identify specific areas where they can be of value to the organization. Ideally, the CEO schedules these visits with individual board members twice per year. These meetings serve as mentorship opportunities and help individual directors develop a strong, trusting relationship with the CEO over time.

With the CEO, board chair, and full board acting as a cohesive unit, the organization is better equipped to communicate around setting ambitious goals, building a healthy workplace culture, and engaging more donors and partners.

You don’t need a lengthy, complicated agenda to get a good conversation started. If you don’t have your own, we encourage you to download this template as you get into a rhythm with regular board member sync-ups!

4. Succeed the CEO.

CEO succession can occur in different ways, from an unexpected departure to a well-planned exit.

According to board expert Tom Okarma, “Replacing a CEO ranks among a nonprofit board’s highest and sometimes most leadership-intensive responsibilities. While such a transition presents huge opportunities, it can also be disruptive and filled with emotion, politicking, and hurt feelings. Sooner or later, every nonprofit will likely face this challenge. How it is managed will have repercussions for years to come.”

With this in mind, if the CEO departs unexpectedly or the board has come to the conclusion that the CEO must be replaced, it is their responsibility to make sure the matter is handled with the utmost respect, care, and confidentiality.

We recommend that every board has a written policy in place, which outlines the steps they will take in the event of either a temporary or permanent departure of their CEO. These policies should be reviewed and updated by the board and CEO on an annual basis. Some suggested items to include in the CEO succession policies include the following:

  • Short-term plan for temporary absence of the CEO
  • Individual identified to serve as interim CEO
  • Compensation guidelines for interim CEO
  • Communications plan
  • Committee or individuals named to assess and address a CEO vacancy
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