This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who will be presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Seattle, October 18-20. We hope you’ll be joining us there.
The social sector may achieve greater impact if it subscribes more deliberately and deeply to the principle of ujima, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: collective work and responsibility. LaPiana Consulting has decades of experience working with nonprofits on meaningful collaboration, and we often begin sessions with this African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” There is convergence between this proverb and the concept of ujima, especially when thinking about the distinct, yet complementary, roles that boards and CEOs must navigate when sharing leadership.
Just as effective chief executives support their staff, the board supports the chief executive. But one thing to keep in mind is that the impact of a board’s support may be different from the board’s intent, depending upon how it is offered and received. With variations of leadership styles, personality types, and organizational needs, it is critical for an ongoing conversation between the board and CEO to develop and maintain a shared understanding of what effective support is and isn’t, in the situation then in hand.
I worked with an organization that had recently hired a new executive director, Jeff. He had five years of experience as a program director, but this was his first time in the top job. Six months into Jeff’s tenure, tensions were brewing with two board members – Andy and Rachel. Given that this was Jeff’s first go at running an organization, these well-meaning board members had developed a tendency to cross boundaries from strategy and governance into the operational realm. Andy thought he was helping when he showed up to staff meetings to participate and “bring some board perspective.” Rachel, a program officer at a local foundation, offered guidance about program evaluation. Rachel’s insights weren’t the issue, but rather that she offered them directly to the program team, absent Jeff.
Part of my engagement with this client involved a review of roles and responsibilities, facilitating a conversation about expectations and how support is demonstrated and received. I used the example of The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, which describes how in relationships people receive love differently. Some may prefer words of affirmation; others quality time. The key is understanding and recognizing how your partner receives love and demonstrating it in that way. Similarly, in the board-CEO partnership, a board member may think that redlining a memo is an act of support, but if the executive director would have preferred a conversation about the content, then expectations are mismatched — they are speaking a different language.
Clarifying and communicating expectations at the top is key to accelerating impact through the board’s collective work and responsibility. Role definition helps board members and staff operate within the scope of their own responsibilities, laying the foundation for a trusting, cooperative, and effective relationship.
But this is just part of the story.
Success in the board-staff relationship is much more than just each partner “staying in their own lane.” Board members want — and must be — meaningfully engaged. Beyond clarity of roles, board-CEO teams have many tools at their disposal for ensuring effective engagement. Assessments and self-assessments (for the board as a body as well as for individual board members) can help identify strengths and how to best use them to advance the organization’s mission. Board committees offer a structure for defining, mobilizing, and coordinating board members’ participation. Adopting a generative approach to governance and intentionally nurturing a culture of inquiry can help boards engage more meaningfully. And the board chair has a unique responsibility for teaming with the CEO to ensure that the board and staff are working seamlessly toward the same goals.
Make no mistake: all of these board engagement strategies take time. Sure, boards and CEOs could continue to go it alone — and get nowhere fast. Only by finding ways to move forward together will they go far.
Join me at the BoardSource Leadership Forum in October for Ujima! Leveraging the Chief Executive -Board Chair Partnership, where we’ll talk about eight (or more!) additional ways to nurture a healthy and productive board-staff relationship.