By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
When a CEO publicly introduces a board member as “my boss,” (as I have overheard more than once) there is a problem. It’s true that both parties—CEO and board member—have specific roles in the success of a nonprofit organization. But the hierarchy of authority should be deemphasized when it comes to interpersonal connections. The most effective mindset for CEO and directors is to view each other as partners in working to achieve the organization’s mission and their impacts.
The CEO’s efforts to cultivate such relationships are key. The following are some initiatives that he/she can utilize: *
• Partners need to know each other as individuals: With overcrowded meeting agendas, rambling debates and hurried exits, there is often not enough time to know the person’s name who sits next to you, let alone anything about his life outside the boardroom. Even off-site meetings for informal exchange are hard to schedule and poorly attended. This lack of human connection is a real deficit in internal board relationships. The CEO can help in a number of ways.
1. Take a few minutes at the beginning or end of the meeting to allow the directors, if they choose, to report something new or important in their personal or professional lives.
2. The CEO and/or board members should try to meet with individual directors or small groups to suggest new or unique ideas for improvement within the organization. Show professional regard for their responses even if it is not actionable.
3. Create social occasions by inviting directors and their significant others to participate informally. Or ask some board members to plan gatherings that could be as casual as afternoon wine and cheese or self paid dinners out together.
• Connect partner directors to the CEO’s real work: Since most nonprofit directors’ full-time interests and professions are not directly related to the organization’s mission, it’s important for CEOs to educate directors more deeply about what goes on routinely to achieve the mission, especially in those areas (e.g. human resources) in which the decision-making information is quite ambiguous.
For partner directors wanting deeper organization knowledge, the CEO needs to invite them to accompany him/h to local, regional or national professional meetings. Not only do these offer professional benefits, such as understanding accrediting processes, but it also offers the CEO an opportunity to solidify partnerships. Example: As a young faculty person at a university, the senior VP of Finance occasionally would invite me to accompany him to professional meetings. He would use travel time to orient me on macro issues.
• Energize board meetings: In recent years business meetings have been described as “death by power point.” Many presentations ranges from 20 to 30 power point cells when 8-10 can highlight the story. There are many actions the CEO, with the concurrence of the board chair, can take to develop these into partnership relations.
1. Keep minutiae off the agenda. If it crops up because a few directors find a small topic of tangential interest, the chair has a leadership obligation to take action by saying, “How does the X issue contribute directly to achieving our mission? Let’s set up a process where those interested in this issue can discuss it after the meeting.”
2. Place the boilerplate topics at the end of the meeting.
3. Staff reports on their operations are necessary at every other board meeting. While the CEO has an obligation to make certain they are brief and well presented, the chair has to make certain that board member questions are precise so that the staff person can stay within allotted time.
4. Use a “consent agenda” process for items about which there appears to be substantial agreement.
5. Make certain that every new chair is reasonably familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order to encourage civil discussion and conduct an orderly meeting process. It also can be helpful to appoint a parliamentarian should the rule-book need interpretation.
6. Focus on action items. “Send board members out the door with a clear idea of what they need to do between now and the next board meeting”** (and with the feeling that he/s has met with a group of high energy partners.)
• Meaningful Work: As much as possible, the CEO, with the board chair, has to make certain that every director views his/h efforts as meaningful to achieving the mission: Example: A CEO devoted an entire meeting to reviewing a presentation he was planning to make. This was the final straw for a board member, who felt his time was being squandered. He immediately resigned his position with the usual excuse of increased work responsibilities.
A Leadership Challenge: Bonding with the board and encouraging director-to-director connections is a tall order for a CEO with full operational responsibilities. As directors’ terms expire and new people step up to the plate, the challenge to build relationships is continuous. Even some termed-out board members need meaningful contact and must be kept interested and invested in the nonprofit’s development. The CEO, with the strong support of the board chair, should provide leadership in these important tasks—it will help the organization to move forward while maximizing the benefits to its clients.