Have you ever met a board of directors who goes through the process of hiring an Executive Director with the hopes that they will resign in a year or two? Me neither. Yet this is what happens across the sector time and time again.
Through interviewing over 30 Executive Directors of nonprofit organizations who held the position one or twice, yet never took it on again, I've learned a lot about why this is happening. Not surprisingly, one of the reasons people leave the position is a weak relationship between the Executive Director and Board Chair.
How these weaknesses show up depends on a number of factors, including the goals of the organization, the experience of the Executive Director and/or Board Chair and the history of the organization. No matter the situation or skill level though, this relationship can be cultivated across four accessible and achievable postures on the part of both the Board Chair and the Executive Director:
The board hired the Executive Director. The Executive Director took the position. Knowing no one is perfect, the two must now enter into a relationship with a spirit of generosity and kindness. Both sides will make mistakes and be uncertain about pieces of their role. Assuming positive intention and a posture of seeking to understand, rather than critique or complain, lays the foundation for a strong relationship that will reap benefits down the road.
When a Board Chair or Executive Director is surprised by something the other says or does in a board meeting or beyond, it breeds confusion and distrust. Executive Directors and Board Chairs who practice honesty and straight talk - and work from the assumption of 'no secrets' - are more likely to lead with courage and intention, rather than uneasiness and resentment.
In public and in private, the Board Chair and Executive Director should find ways to notice strengths in each other and mention them often. Importantly, they should also showcase these strengths to others, sharing with individuals and groups the characteristics and qualities they admire in the other leader. Playing this role of cheerleader not only feels good - it sets the stage for success when the pair must hold the necessary conversations around constructive feedback and realignment.
Any leader doing their job well will face challenges, whether with staff, clients, funders, community members or other board members. Given the foundation laid through the practices above, Board Chairs and Executive Directors already should trust each other and understand the why behind any challenge or crisis. At this point, the two should be ready to defend, shelter and support each other knowing that no matter the bumps, they are working towards their strategic goals around client and community impact.