This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!
One of the most important, yet often overlooked, relationships within a nonprofit organization is the one between the board and the chief executive. This relationship is very much like a marriage. And, like any marriage, it takes hard work and commitment for it to be healthy and strong.
Because this relationship is much like a marriage, I turned to Dr. Phil for some advice. After being happily married for more than 33 years, Dr. Phil shared some of his thoughts about what makes a marriage work. I’ve been married twice myself, and I can attest to the validity of his suggestions. I’ve also been involved with the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years, and I understand how this advice relates to the nonprofit world. Below is Dr. Phil’s marriage advice, followed by my comments on how these things relate to the board/chief executive relationship:
1) “The quality of a relationship is a function of the extent to which it is built on a solid underlying friendship and meets the needs of the two people involved.” The board and chief executive are more than simply employer and employee. True, this is one role they play, but nonprofits tend to thrive when the relationship is more than that — when there is a mutual friendship; when both parties like and respect each other; when they get along well. When both parties are fulfilled and are receiving a mutual benefit, the relationship will be of a much higher quality, and most likely be more productive.
2) “You get what you give. When you give better, you get better.” A healthy relationship, no matter who it is between, works better when both parties are willing to give something of themselves — their time, their talent, their treasure; sometimes all three. The board/chief Executive relationship is really no different. Invest in it without thought of gain, and you will definitely reap what you sow.
3) “If you put your relationship in a win/lose situation, it will be a lose/lose situation.” There is absolutely no reason for a board and its chief executive to ever create anything but a win/win situation. The relationship always works best when both parties win! Don’t even consider any other option. The way to ensure this happens is to always put the mission of the organization first — over personalities, over finances, over strategies. After all, it’s really why you are part of the nonprofit organization to begin with!
4) “Forget whether you're right or wrong. The question is: Is what you're doing working or not working?” So many board/chief executive relationships fail because of pride. When you can take pride out of the equation, the solutions tend to become so much more evident. Concentrate more on whether you are being effective, and leave the right or wrong label hanging on the door knob outside.
5) “There is no right or wrong way to fix a relationship. Find your own way that works. But recognize when it's not working and be honest when it needs fixing.” I will admit that there are some basic principles that need to be considered when trying to fix a broken board/chief executive relationship — things like trust and communication should always be a part of the conversation. That being said, there are many paths to the same destination. What works for someone else, may not work for you. The important thing is to recognize when things are not going well, then take action to improve them!
6) “Falling in love is not the same thing as being in love. Embrace the change and know that it takes work.” Okay, I’ll admit this piece of advice might be a bit of a stretch to relate to the board and chief executive. We don’t necessarily need to be in love with each other to have a healthy relationship. However, the second part of the advice does fit — embrace change and know that your relationship is going to take work. I recommend that you consider adding the board/chief executive relationship as a standard agenda item at your board meetings. If you don’t keep it in front of you, you will neglect it and very often, take it for granted.
7) “You don't fix things by fixing your partner.” I think one sign of a good leader is that they accept responsibility and don’t pass the blame onto others. When things between the board and chief executive are tense, stop and take a look in the mirror. It could be that the problem is staring right at you!
8) “Intimacy is so important because it is when we let someone else enter our private world.” Not every board member is comfortable being close to their chief executive. And vice versa. However, a certain degree of intimacy, if you will, goes a long way to warding off problems before they become problems. Often, when there is a deep openness and honesty, the other person will offer help, support, and advice that you never would have received if you kept the relationship “all about business.” I am not suggesting any inappropriate behavior here. I am suggesting that allowing others into your private world is very often a liberating and powerful experience. Just be smart about whom and how often you let them in.
9) “You don't necessarily solve problems. You learn how to manage them.” We’re all imperfect beings. We bring our flaws to the board table. Often, they permeate the very organizations we are there to help. Dr. Phil’s advice here is right on point. Let’s stop trying to eliminate the problems in our nonprofit organizations and in our board/ chief executive relationships and instead concentrate on managing them. If we can learn how to deal with the imperfections that exist, sometimes even creating work-arounds, we can all remain true to ourselves and yet still be effective and efficient.
10) “Communicate. Make sure your sentences have verbs. Remember that only seven percent of communication is verbal. Actions and non-verbal communication speak much louder.” I believe that the majority of problems that exist between the chief executive and board is a result of under-communicating and under-acting. I often tell my clients that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate, especially when it comes to the board and its chief executive. True, most board members won’t care what the chief executive had for lunch. But, they will care that he or she met with someone that can advance their cause, or that made a significant gift. I also tell my clients that they had better do what they say they are going to do! Never make a promise you can’t complete. Keeping everyone engaged and in the loop is easy today with the advances in email, smart phones, shared documents, calendars, and tasks lists. Use the tools available. Be proactive when it comes to communicating, and I promise you will see immediate rewards!
11) “You teach people how to treat you. You can renegotiate the rules.” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is more than just a Biblical philosophy. Whether you are the board chair, committee member, or chief executive, modeling the behavior yourself that you would like to see in others is a way of teaching others what is acceptable and expected. Ghandi said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is true among nonprofit boards as well. Teach others what is right and wrong by demonstrating it through your actions!
Joseph J. Morrison, Jr. is the founder and CEO of Raiser Sharp Consulting, providing fundraising, leadership development, and marketing/social media services exclusively to nonprofits. He especially enjoys working with executive directors of small to mid-sized nonprofits who want to grow their organizations but may not know how.