Dynamic Duo

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 24th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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There is, perhaps, no more important relationship in a nonprofit than that between executive director and board president.  One of the key challenges in this relationship is that it changes with regularity (or it should!).  Depending upon the organization, it may change annually, biennially or triennially.  In  some cases, the relationship may go on even longer.

Duration of relationship aside, obviously, the greatest challenge is dynamic of the duo.  There are times when executive directors embrace the start of a new board presidency with great joy and anticipation; others, it is with great dread.  Unfortunately, there is little the executive director can do about this, as rarely does the board turn to the executive director and ask, “What do you want in the next president of the board?”

Given that this doesn’t happen, the only recourse the executive director has is to engage in back door politicking with those board members with whom s/he has a good, honest relationship.  Again, unfortunately, this a) isn’t always an available option and b) when it does exist as an option, it doesn’t always work.

This relationship, however, should not be created lightly; and, yet, more often than not it is.  When boards select a new board president, little thought is given to who person X will work with the executive director compared to person Y.  Rather, boards are engaging in one or more several other lines of thought—most likely in this order:

  • Thank goodness, I’m not the candidate!
  • I like person X.
  • Person X will do okay.
  • Person X has the skills and personality to lead us during this point in time in our organization’s history.
  • Person X and the executive director will make a great team.

Too frequently, many board members don’t get past that first response in their thought process.

The executive director, however, must deal with whatever decision the board throws her/his way.  And the new board president must deal with this relationship, as well.  It really shouldn’t be that hard if the duo agrees that communication is central.  Open, honest (to the extent that the executive director feels comfortable being open and honest with his/her number one boss) and regular communication is the key to a successful board president-executive director relationship.  There must be a commitment, minimally, to a standing, bimonthly meeting, be it a phone conversation or a face-to-face.  Ideally, one meeting happens by phone, one face-to-face.  If both sides prefer, it can be a weekly check-in by phone, with every fourth check-in happening face-to-face.  Or whatever the two decide provides the right amount of communication and support.  Regardless of frequency, this meeting time must be protected by both halves of the relationship, if this is to work.  And to be sure, none of this, of course, precludes reaching out to the other on an as-needed basis.

But the very first conversation that board president and executive director should have is a frank conversation about what each expects from the other going forward, how they like to work, what is the best way to communicate with them, what are their styles of leadership, etc.    (With a president serving more than one year, this conversation should happen, as a fresher and path to improvement, if necessary, at the start of each year as president.)  Recently, I heard a an executive director tell her story of her first two years as a new executive director needing to turn a well-established but marred by scandal and financial troubles organization around.  A new board president, sitting next to his executive director, asked the storyteller three questions:

  1. What did you value that you got from your board president?
  2. What did you get from your board president that helped you through this crisis?
  3. What did you want from your board president that you did not get?

With a little tweaking, these are three great questions to ask of one another at that first meeting of new board president and executive director.

  1. What do you want from me that will help you be better as board president/executive director?
  2. What will you value most from me in my position as board president/executive director?
  3. What are you most afraid of not getting from me as board president/executive director?

Tweak these again and they become three great questions for reviewing the prior year’s relationship for a returning board president and executive director.

Every important relationship in our lives takes work, at some point in its course, if we want to sustain it and insure that it is as strong, healthy and vibrant as it can be.  This goes for the executive director/board president relationship, as well.  Yes, one is paid and the other is a volunteer; but each has incredibly critical work to do.  To the extent that we can try and insure one another’s success, as well as the success of the duo, we should.  It isn’t that hard; it just takes a little clear communication.

It is never too late in the relationship to stop and have this conversation.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.