Updated: May 18, 2021
One of our survey respondents said it best when sharing that “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.”
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.
This potential weakness can be influenced by many factors, including the goals of the organization, the experience of the executive director and board chair, the current challenges that are being faced and the history that has been experienced, both personally and organizationally.
How can we improve upon this?
In 2019, Storied Awareness interviewed over 40 former executive directors of nonprofits about their prior experiences. These interviews pointed to four leadership postures that can make or break the board chair - executive director partnership. The four critical postures are 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. While not easy, any board chair and executive director, regardless of what they are bringing to the position, can influence the experience and ultimately build a stronger and more effective leadership model. In turn, being in relationship across these postures creates trust amongst the two parties, lays the framework for a strong organizational culture and allows for creative friction, rather than uncreative destruction.
In future articles, I’ll break down how each of these postures look as part of my 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, true transformation occurs 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 and accepting each others 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 the 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 honeymoon phase of the board chair - executive director relationship is during the hiring process. At this point, everyone is on their best behaviour and both sides are eager for the other to succeed and hopeful about the possibilities ahead.
Naturally, over time, both sides of the relationship experience the natural challenges that come along with leadership. Additionally, it is inevitable that both sides will misstep and make mistakes. New leaders especially will feel uncertain about their role and the decisions they need to make, creating and amplifying any existing tensions. They might also feel they don’t have support, due to lack of transparent conversations or professionalism.
It is at these moments that board-executive conflict can arise. If the tensions in this relationship remain unresolved, it can lead to significant disillusionment with the job, burnout, and high risk of turnover for executive directors.
Our research results confirm this hypothesis. When former nonprofit leaders shared details of their experiences through surveys and interviews, 24% of them cited unrealistic expectations from the board as a reason for their departure. Here is how they described this part of their stories:
“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 the board chair-executive director 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 so that they can identify solutions that otherwise 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:
Consistently hold regular 1:1 meetings with a loose, non-judgmental 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 feedback, kindly and from a place of making this better together.
Allow each other to make mistakes in their words and actions; help the other person know 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.
Acknowledge the executive director may still be carrying stories from their former position, and the organization may be holding onto their predecessor’s way of working.
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 this leadership relationship. This is a transformational factor in determining success in the roles, 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.”
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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.