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How Executive Directors and Board Chairs Can Foster Support

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Welcome to 2021! If one thing is for sure, the upheavals of the last year have encouraged so many of us to pause and consider our jobs with a more critical lens. What elements of our jobs are working for us? What aspects are causing consistent tension? And how will this carry into the new year?

During your reflections, you may have realized that your work relationships are a major source of stress. If so, you aren’t alone. The American Institute of Stress found that our team dynamics directly affect more than 90% of what is stressing us out at work.

This can be especially true if the team dynamics in question are between an executive director and board chair, as these two roles rely heavily on one another to keep an organization afloat. As one Storied Awareness survey participant stated,

“the make or break for any ED is the board chair.”

A new year and a symbolic “fresh start” is the perfect opportunity to reestablish the foundation of this relationship, build a better partnership, and ultimately reduce stress in your role. So, how should you take the first step?

Bring “Support” to the Executive Director / Board Chair Relationship

If you’ve been following along with my blog posts over the last year, you will have noticed I’ve been sharing content for my leadership coaching series “The Four Postures Guiding the ED / Board Chair Relationship.” I posit that there are four main principles that create a strong partnership, and that every nonprofit leader can use these postures as a guide stone in their own work life. So far, I’ve covered the first three postures:

To round out the series, I am introducing the final posture: support.

By definition, support refers to holding up or adding strength to something - figuratively or literally. In the context of the board chair and executive director relationship, support refers to ways in which the pair find ways to notice strengths in each other and recognize them often. Importantly, they should also showcase these strengths to others. You can think of this as each person playing the role of cheerleader to the other.

Fostering support is a critical element to ensuring the board chair and executive director relationship is functioning in a healthy and productive manner. Showing support by cheering one another on not only feels good, but it sets the stage for success when the pair must hold the necessary conversations around constructive feedback and realignment.

Having a supportive relationship has wide reaching benefits, such as:

  • Fostering healthier staff interactions across the workplace

  • Helping the executive director foster stronger relationships with the board as a whole

  • Helping the organization accomplish goals in a more productive and timely manner, including fundraising goals

  • Creating a strength based framework for leadership discussions, decisions and evaluation improving results and mitigating challenges

  • Greater job satisfaction for the executive director and board chair

We know that support can make or break an experience for an executive director - especially if this is their first time in that role.

When speaking with former executive directors as part of my Storied Awareness survey work, I noticed something striking. Feelings of “isolation and lack of support” were one of the top reasons that talented professionals were leaving the nonprofit industry all together.

In regards to the board chair’s role in fostering a positive work experience, one of the interviewees said,

You're going to need to provide them with a certain level of support underneath so that they don't fall flat on their face.”

It’s clear that many executive directors crave support that doesn’t exist within their organization.

9 Ways Support Shows Up

Fostering a supportive relationship between an executive director and board chair will take work. But there are concrete steps that each individual can take to move in the right direction. For example, here are 9 ways that support shows up in the executive director / board chair relationship:

  1. Notice and acknowledge strengths and share them out loud, both in private and public conversations and meetings

  2. Listen and empathize with what is happening for your partner

  3. Acknowledge growth and recognize hard work: reflect on where you each have come from

  4. Remind each other of past progress and success

  5. Provide and pay for an executive coach for at least the executive director and ideally the board chair and executive director together

  6. Create annual goals together and share with the board, including organizational, professional and personal growth and remind each other of them regularly

  7. Provide regular annual reviews, as well as quarterly check-ins to goals

  8. Require professional development as part of executive director role (both self-selected and selected by the board chair based on annual review)

  9. Ask (and keep asking) 'where is your greatest challenge right now and how can I help'?

One thing to remember is that these steps require consistency. I encourage all executive directors and board chairs to commit to biweekly one-on-one meetings to begin cultivating a trusting relationship. As one Storied Awareness interviewee stated,

“I do think that it's good for the board and the ED to have a way to build some relationship outside of just the sort of linear, hierarchical relationship that you naturally feel like [exists in the workplace.]”

Ideally, these meetings will either have a loose agenda or none at all. The goal is to find time to talk, share in your experiences, and catch up on any major personal or professional updates. These can be in person when protocols permit, yet they can also be conducted effectively through phone or Zoom calls.

Enhancing Support With Additional Coaching:

In some executive director / board chair relationships, fostering a culture of support may require additional assistance. These situations can include times when:

  • One or both individuals are unsure of where to begin

  • One or both individuals feel that their own efforts have not been enough to foster support

  • One or both individuals are resistant to changing the current dynamic

  • One or both individuals continue running into the same roadblocks and are uncertain of how to proceed

These situations are quite common. Bringing in an outside professional, such as a leadership coach, can help guide the pair through the process of fostering a supportive relationship.

In general, coaching can provide significant benefits. According to Forbes, “over 70% of individuals who receive coaching benefited from improved work performance, relationships and more effective communication skills.”

What’s more, executive directors often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of job responsibilities they have; providing some relationship building support through an external coach can help strengthen the executive director / board chair, while reducing stress for the executive director.

When looking at my entire series, “The Four Postures Guiding the ED / Board Chair Relationship,” you will notice that this is the only posture that includes someone external to the organization, an executive coach. This is because Storied Awareness interviewees who were able to reflect positively on their role with energy and compassion were the ones who had executive coaches. Oftentimes, an outside coach is able to help an executive director address vulnerabilities, capitalize on strengths, and manage the many layers of their role with grace.

Providing a coach does not take away from the responsibilities of a board chair, yet allows more space for the pair to clarify goals, unlock their potential and gain more self-awareness. Those who utilized coaches felt much more supported and able to manage through the challenges of growing into a leadership position and growing an organization.

If you enjoyed this blog, join my newsletter for more insights, stories and actions for ambitious nonprofit leaders. And in the meantime, keep up with me on LinkedIn!


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