By Melissa Lagowski
CEO / Queen Bee / Founder
Big Buzz Idea Group
In thinking back to my first day as an Executive Director (E.D.), I realize now that the tone was set right there on day one. I met the Board President at my new office. He unlocked the door, handed me the key and said, “Have a nice day” as he left.
There was no training, nobody to answer my questions. I don’t even know if I saw any of the board members between meetings (except, on occasion, for the Board member who owned the building where my office was located). I was intimidated by them, stressed out and constantly afraid that I might mess something up and that I would be penalized.
All these years later, having now worked with dozens of boards, my advice to anyone in a nonprofit leadership role: make every effort to professionally connect with each board member, particularly your chair or president. There are specific responsibilities for the President and the Executive Director, and both positions are critical to maintaining the health of your nonprofit or association.
The Board Chair/President is meant to maintain order in the boardroom. The job description for this role is generally defined in the bylaws, and it is most likely that your bylaws will include some combination of the following responsibilities (in no particular order):
- Maintain governance and oversight of your organization,
- Advise and counsel the nonprofit staff,
- Manage and evaluate the Executive Director annually,
- Participate in visioning and strategic planning,
- Conduct succession planning, and
- Rally the board for fundraising and engagement.
The roles of the Executive Director are very different from the Board Chair/President as the E.D. is overseeing the day-to-day management of the association – directing the execution of operational tasks and executing the directives that have been laid out by the board. The responsibilities of the Executive Director include (in no particular order):
- Hiring, managing and evaluating staff (and volunteers),
- Overseeing operations of the organization,
- Collaborating and reporting to the Board on a regular basis,
- Identifying and achieving the annual goals necessary to make the strategic plan a reality,
- Keeping the organization on budget, and
- Creating and managing the organizational culture.
The relationship between the Executive Director and the Board Chair is one that is worth the investment to make this a strong team. While staying in your own lanes, the two of you should work together to create a mission-driven dynamic duo for your organization. And, as with any strong relationship, you have to do the work and devote the time to strengthen this bond.
These six tips will help to develop an ideal relationship that will serve your nonprofit well.
As two leaders with varying vantage points, the Executive Director and the Board Chair may not always see eye to eye. It is important that you try to see each discussion from the other’s point of view, and no matter what, always show respect for one another even in times of disagreement.
Establish a Regular Communication Schedule
As two important leaders within your organization, the Board Chair and the E.D. must talk regularly. It is important to keep one another informed about what is happening within the association. As soon as the President is elected, establish a communication cadence and establish preferred communication channels. Weekly check-ins are advisable. These don’t have to be long meetings, but with routine conversations, you can stay abreast of any potential situations and handle them effectively.
Set Clear Expectations of One Another
People often establish preconceived notions about different situations without even realizing it. You probably have some ideas of how you would like the relationship between the Board Chair and the E.D. to work, so it is best to share those ideas up front. Ask the other person how your vision aligns with their vision and confirm if you can both agree to the same terms. This will foster a strong bond, which will foster a great working relationship.
Establish Organizational Priorities
Much like you establish your expectations of one another, the Executive Director and the Board Chair should also discuss what their priorities are going to be for the term ahead. Nonprofits always have a lot of work to do.
Hopefully you have a strategic plan that will help guide that work, and when the leadership can agree on which three to five initiatives they wish to tackle in the year ahead, you will be more successful at accomplishing your goals.
By clarifying priorities, you will be able to better support one another and help everyone succeed in elevating the organization.
Work Like a Team
Always remember that you are “one team with one dream.” The Board is serving in their role to support your nonprofit organization. Be sure to find ways for everyone to make a meaningful contribution. Ask questions, solicit feedback, and tap into the expertise of your board members. It is important to inform not just your Board Chair, but all Board Members, about the activity of the organization so that they can actively participate in leadership decisions when needed.
And if you have actively established your Board with a variety of different experts, your leadership can help you and the organizational staff to learn and grow in ways that will also continue to advance your nonprofit. It is important to work as a team to maximize everyone’s individual talents for the greater good.
Have Honest, Open Conversations
Many people have a difficult time having honest and open conversations. People may fear letting others down, or they may not know how to effectively discuss an alternative point of view. Oftentimes, people will take a dissenting view personally and feel wounded when their idea is not selected.
But the reality is that when you focus on the mission and each “player” puts all their thoughts on the table about a particular topic, then you are more likely to find the best solution for the organization. Be courageous and always agree to have the difficult conversations when they need to be had. After all, you and the Board members are there because of a personal commitment to the association. The best leaders do not shy away from these important conversations.
And be sure to offer grace to one another. You will never be right all the time. If you make a mistake, take responsibility for it. If you owe the other person an apology, give it. You might gain new information that will change opinions and change outcomes. When you offer grace, you will also receive grace in return.
The relationship between the Board Chair and the Executive Director have advanced a lot since my first stint as an E.D. Set the tone by inviting your new President to connect for a meaningful session to establish these ground rules, and you will both have a much more productive year.