“The make or break for any executive director is the board chair. They really have to understand his or her role in managing the board and being the cheerleader of bringing the board along. . . If you don't have a functional board chair that's a good leader, that understands the role of board chair and the board, you're dead in the water and it's a really awful job.”
-anonymous Storied Awareness survey respondent
Effective board chair-executive relationships are critical to the long-term stability of a nonprofit. Yet these relationships are often fraught with conflict or unrealistic expectations, resulting in high job turnover for executive directors and frustration on the part of board chairs. In fact, one of our recent surveys reported that unrealistic expectations from their board was a reason that 24% of executive directors left their positions dissatisfied.
Losing leadership quickly and without planning has a significant impact on an organization, increasing resources spent on the hiring process, decreasing employee morale, and often halting progress towards long term goals.
How can we improve upon this?
We advocate that there are four leadership postures that guide successful nonprofit board chair - executive director relationships: generosity, candor, support and protection. The beauty of these postures is that no matter the situation or skill level of the individuals involved, they are accessible and achievable for anyone willing to do the emotional work of being in a productive, authentic relationship.
In future blogs, we’ll be breaking down how each of these looks as part of our leadership coaching programming. Today, we’re diving deep into generosity.
What is Generosity?
When you hear the term generosity, what comes to mind? Is it donating money or volunteering time to a cause you support? While these acts are generous, where true transformation occurs is when generosity is brought into relationships.
In a professional relationship, generosity means the willingness to work closely with another person, and respectively recognize each other as growing and changing people. This expresses itself as:
Allowing for inevitable mistakes in each others words and actions
Allowing humanness to show up through sharing thoughts and feelings
Kindly giving and receiving feedback from a place of “let’s make this better together”
Generosity allows the board chair and executive director space to reflect and understand what is going on around them, ultimately leading to better decisions and stronger leadership.
What Do Nonprofit Leaders Say?
The board chair-executive director relationship begins with the hiring process. At this point, both parties want one another to succeed.
Naturally, over time, these individuals experience the challenges that come with leadership. Additionally, both sides will make mistakes. New leaders especially will feel uncertain about their roles and the decisions they need to make, amplifying existing tensions. They might also feel they don’t have support, due to lack of transparent conversations or professionalism.
It is at this moment that board-executive conflict can arise. If these tensions remain unresolved, it can lead to significant disillusionment with the job, burnout, and high risk of turnover.
Our survey and interview results confirm this hypothesis. As part of our yearly surveys of nonprofit leaders, we ask them to share details on their experience. We noticed multiple individuals commenting on a strained board-executive relationship, stating:
“If the board ain't working, nothing's working.”
“Even our best board members probably weren’t lying awake at night worrying about the organization.”
“I needed to believe that at least one person was in my corner and that there was some creative positive energy in the room . . . and at the time, I didn't see a single person with that sort of energy around me.”
It’s clear that conflict can arise in these relationships, which is detrimental for an organization as a whole. So how do we prevent this?
By incorporating generosity into the foundation of the board chair-executive director relationship.
The Significance of Generosity for a Board Chair-Executive Director Relationship
Entering into this relationship with a spirit of generosity allows each side to assume positive intention on the part of the other and seek to understand, rather than critique. Mistakes and missteps need to be acknowledged, consequences need to be accepted, situations need to be made better where they can, and the pair needs to keep moving forward. This giving and accepting of generosity is a two-way street - and beneficial for both the executive director and the board chair of the nonprofit.
Generosity gives the executive director and the board chair space to reflect and understand what is going on around them and between them. This improves their understanding of their roles in the organizational system, allows them to tap into opportunities they might otherwise miss and gives them the ability to find space around challenges and find solutions that could be overlooked.
8 Board-Executive Action Items
How does generosity show up in a nonprofit board chair-executive director relationship? Here are some practical tips from our leadership trainings that set the stage and allow this posture to flourish:
Acknowledge the executive director may still be carrying their former position, and the organization may be holding onto their predecessor
Consistently hold regular 1:1 meetings with a flexible agenda that allows time for the executive director to share what is going on in the role and what challenges and successes they are facing
Listen with intent, reflection and attention: no devices and no need for action
Give and receive feedback regularly from a place of making this better together
Allow each other to make mistakes; show the other person that imperfection is acceptable
Allow humanness to show up and live through honest sharing of reactions to situations
Pay attention, reflect and understand situations while you are going through them
Bring this spirit of consistency, reflection and acceptance to board, executive committee and committee meetings through the structure of regular and consistent meetings, clear agendas, honesty of current reality and celebration of success
Incorporating these tips makes the space for generosity to take hold in your work life. This is a transformational factor in determining success in a role, and success for an organization as a whole.
As one of our surveyed participants said, when asked about implementing generosity, “I found that just plain caring for people made a big difference.”
Stay in Touch
Please stay tuned for future blog posts and subscribe to our newsletter, where we’ll be sharing leadership tips for nonprofit professionals. This includes takeaways from our coaching sessions for nonprofit leaders, suggestions for executive directors and board members on how to maximize the impact of their roles, and ways for nonprofit leaders to get connected and feel supported.