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Suggestions to Enhance Working Relationship Between Board Chair and Chief Executive

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

Inherent Struggles Between Both Roles
Formal Practices and Procedures that Can Minimize Conflict
Personal Practices to Minimize Interpersonal Conflicts
If Worse Comes to Worse

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Inherent Struggles Between Both Roles

Many experts assert that one of the most important ingredients to a successful corporation (nonprofit or for-profit) is a high-quality relationship between the board chair and the chief executive. However, this relationship has several inherent struggles to overcome. The chief executive was usually in the organization before the chair was appointed and will be around after the chair will be gone. In addition, the chief executive is also much closer to the day-to-day activities in the organization. Lastly, the chief executive usually knows far more about the organization's customers. Consequently, the chief executive may feel that he or she knows far much more about the organization than the board chair. Yet, the board chair is responsible to provide leadership to the board to whom the chief executive is accountable. The board chair leads the board which evaluates the performance of the chief executive. Maintaining a high-quality relationship between the two roles requires a high level of maturity and understanding from both people filling those roles.

Formal Practices and Procedures that Can Minimize Conflict

One of the most effective means to minimize conflict between both roles is to set up formal practices or procedures that help both people in the roles discern between an organizational issue and a personal issue. The following suggestions are provided to help ensure a high-quality relationship between the board chair and chief executive by establishing formal practices and procedures.
1. Have clearly written and approved procedures for evaluating the chief executive and in an approach that ensures strong input from the chief executive.
2. Have regular board training sessions that include overviews of the roles of board chair and chief executive.
3. When a new board chair or chief executive is brought into the organization, the two of them should meet to discuss how they can work together as a team.
4. Agendas for board meetings should be mutually developed by the board chair and chief executive.
5. The board chair can consult with the chief executive when appointing (or suggesting to the board) chairs for various committees.
6. Have clear written guidelines about the roles of staff when they provide ongoing support to board committees.
7. Rotate the board chair position every few years to ensure new and fresh perspectives in the role.
8. Develop board chairs by having vice chairs for a year who later become board chairs.
9. Have a board-wide discussion about the frequency and nature of meetings to be held between the chief executive and board chair. Avoid frequent, one-on-one meetings that only include these two people. While it might intuitively seem that meeting with only these two to cultivate a strong relationship, the risk is too high that the relationship could become highly personalized and confusing to other board members. Always write down the highlights of meetings between the chief executive and board chair and share these highlights with the entire board.
10. Ensure all board members are trained about the role of the board, its current committees and their charters and membership, and that the board chair has basic skills in meeting management.
11. The chief executive and board chair should never conceal information from the rest of the board. Board members pay prefer to keep certain information confidential among board members and not tell the chief executive, but these occasions should be very rare. The chief executive should never conceal information from the board -- all board members have a right to any information about the organization.
12. Celebrate accomplishments, including by naming the key people involved in bringing about the successes. Often these people include the board chair and chief executive.

Personal Practices to Minimize Interpersonal Conflicts

In addition to formal practices to minimize conflicts, the two people in these two roles can follow certain practices themselves. If you're a board chair or chief executive,
1. Practice at least the basic skills in interpersonal communications, e.g., particularly in listening and giving feedback.
2. Whenever you feel conflict, identify to yourself what it is that you're actually seeing or hearing that might be causing the conflict. This attempt helps to differentiate whether the source of the conflict is the other person's behavior or, e.g., some remnant of a relationship or situation in the past. (Note that whether the conflict is from the other person or not, it's still appropriate to work with the other person to address at least your perception of a conflict with them.)
3. If you're feeling uneasy, then say out loud what you're feeling. If you feel there's conflict or tension between you two, name it out loud. This doesn't mean your "weaker" or out of control -- quite the contrary. It displays a great deal of maturity and knowledge about interpersonal dynamics to recognize and surface conflict in order to mutually resolve it
4. Recognize that conflict is inherent in any successful relationship, particularly in a board if all members are actively meeting their responsibilities. The important thing here, again, is to name it if you think it's becoming an ongoing problem.
5. Keep perspective that no one should have to continue to experience continued conflicts with someone in their lives, including the workplace. Know when to say enough is enough -- this limit is your own and you're the expert at recognizing it.
6. Continue to try sense if the conflict is around an organizational issue or is a matter of interpersonal "chemistry", that is, you both have such differing natures that you'll probably need some outside intervention to work together. (Note that if this is the case, it will be a tremendous learning curve -- but a precious one -- for you to learn to work with such natures that are so different than your own. That's one hallmark of diversity.)

If Worse Comes to Worse

Obviously, the course of action for a situation such as this depends to a great extent on the nature of the organization and the two people involved. If you're a board chair or chief executive who continues to feel conflict in working with the other person, then consider:
1. Approach the other person and ask for five minutes of their uninterrupted time. Explain your concern, what you see and hear that leads you to believe there's continued conflicts between both of you, what you would like to see or hear between both of you in the future, and why continued conflict can be so destructive to the organization.
2. If the other person says there's no conflict that they are aware of (whether there really is or not), then assert to them that you would appreciate it if they changed certain behaviors when working with you and specifically describe what behaviors you'd like to see from them. They either will change their behaviors, in which case things should improve, or they won't. In which case, you'll need to escalate the issue up the organization, if appropriate, or seek additional assistance about how you plan to handle the problem, for example, avoid it, confront it further, negotiate further, etc.
3. If the problem persists, ask to have time with the Executive Committee to share your concerns. If this isn't appropriate, consider approaching two to three board members one-on-one. (At this point, it's critical to remember that any "badmouthing" or "conspiring" against the other person will only end up hurting the entire board and organization. Therefore, talk with a friend or take careful time to reflect about what you want to say and how to say it to the other board members.) Explain the situation in terms of the behaviors in the issue, not the personality or character of the other person. Explain what you've done so far to address the issue. Describe your perception of the results of your efforts with the other person -- note that it's your perception. Ask for specific advice to address the issue. At the end of the meeting, echo back to them what you hear them suggesting. Attempt to follow their advice. Commit to follow up with them about the results of your following their advice.
4. If the problems persists, you might consider getting outside help. Note that this may be more constructive than posing the problem to the entire board where it may cause great confusion and unease with little or not clear course of action to resolve the issue.

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