Do Not Surprise Your CEO or Board Chair

In my last post, I gave new Board Chairs some advice on how to be effective in their new roles. One point I made was to develop a good relationship with the CEO. Several readers asked for more information. So, this post will address the Board Chair- CEO relationship.

At the high level, trust, transparency, and respect are key to this very important relationship. As Board Chair, you especially need to be humble. The CEO is the expert. And a goal for both is ensuring there are no surprises.

For All Organizations

As I noted in my last post, your CEO gets a new Board Chair every year or two. So essentially, they get a new boss every year or two. It is hard to learn how to work with a new boss that frequently, so put the burden on yourself, not on them.

  • Ask the CEO how they like to work and accommodate them. This does not mean that you cede oversight of the organization. It means that you adapt to their work style and schedule so they can focus on the mission and operations. 
  • Make yourself available when the CEO needs you. But also bring in other board members who might have a skill set better suited to the issue at hand. You don’t own all the power; nor do you have all the skills and expertise.
  • Set up regular meetings. Meet in person or online at least once a month. As Board Chair, you don’t want to be caught unaware; the CEO should make sure you are in the loop on important issues. Talk about big news, new hires or HR issues, programmatic impact and obstacles, financial matters, and fundraising as well as agendas for upcoming exec committee and board meetings. These regular meetings are also an opportunity for you to provide feedback to the CEO that you have gained through meetings with donors or other stakeholders.
  • Show that you want to be a thought partner to the CEO and work to build trust by listening without judgment and by providing thoughtful input. Be ready to support the CEO personally and emotionally, helping to boost their confidence when appropriate. And, remember the role of the board. (See the next point.)
  • Be clear with the CEO, the staff, and the rest of the board that the CEO has the last word on almost every issue. Boards manage only one person – the CEO. The board approves the budget, but the CEO and staff develop, present, and substantiate it. The board has input into and final approval of high-level strategy. That said, your CEO and staff, who are the experts in your mission, should drive the strategic planning process. All other decisions at the operational and programmatic levels belong to the CEO and their staff. You can influence these decisions while acting as a thought partner to the CEO and through the CEO evaluation process. Remember: Board Chairs and other board members should not interfere with the day-to-day operations and programs of the organization. (Except with a startup organization, see below.)
  • Work with the CEO on identifying and bringing on new board members. While the composition of the board is the responsibility of the board, remember that the CEO has a wide network of candidates who might be a good fit. They also need to have board members and leaders they can work with so get their input.
  • Complete an annual performance review with the CEO that includes goals for the organization and for the CEO themselves. Check in regularly on those goals. Neither the board nor the CEO want to be caught off guard.

With a New CEO

If your CEO is new to the organization or new to the role of CEO, I would make some additional recommendations:

  • Have a transition plan to introduce the new CEO to your stakeholders and to come up to speed on how your organization is run. This plan should be developed by board and staff. Board Chair and other board members should make introductions and accompany the new CEO to meetings as appropriate. The Board Chair and other committee chairs should update the CEO on the workings of their committees.
  • Develop specific goals for the first month, the first three months, the first half year, and the first year. The board should present the new CEO with a framework and then work with the CEO to refine as time goes on. The goals should be visited and revised at least monthly during the year.
  • Meet more frequently. I believe that for the first year, there should be at least weekly check-ins. They do not have to be more than 30 minutes and could be shorter. But neither the CEO nor the board want any surprises so touching base weekly will ensure that any issues are raised in a timely way. These meetings are also an opportunity for the CEO and the board chair to develop a trusting relationship. As Board Chair, these meetings are a great time to ask questions, listen carefully, and provide supportive input. The new CEO will undoubtedly face challenges and may have some difficult decisions to make. They need to know that the board has their back.
  • Be there to provide history and context. As part of the transition plan and check-in meetings, the Board Chair can provide the CEO with important history and context around specific issues.

With a Startup Organization

All organizations go through different stages. When a nonprofit organization starts up, it often lacks funding and staff. Getting 501c3 status can take months, so it is hard to fundraise. So, board members often roll up their sleeves and take on operational roles as volunteers – marketing, finance, fundraising, HR.

Because of the all-hands-on-deck nature of a startup, the relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO is unique.

  • Acknowledge what role you are playing. Sometimes you will be the Board Chair and the CEO reports to you. Sometimes you will be a volunteer staff person and you report to the CEO. I have done three nonprofit startups and in all three situations, the CEO and I respected and trusted each other so there were not any conflicts. But I have joked about “changing my hat” to be clear which role I was playing. And, remember in the volunteer role, the CEO gets the final say.
  • Meet frequently. In a startup, things move fast. Structures are not always in place. Making sure everyone knows what is going on is vital. So, I advise meeting weekly. The meetings can be short, though you may have information for the CEO to share with the Board Chair and then different types of information that the volunteer wants to share with the CEO. So, information will flow both ways. No one wants surprises. They also don’t want to take time to write or read reports. So quick oral updates are key.
  • Step down when staff can be hired. As the organization grows, board members who volunteer must cheerfully relinquish their positions to hired staff when the time comes. Make sure all your files and information are in order, onboard the new staff person, ensure they know you are available to answer questions, and let go. It is super hard. For one nonprofit, I did all the marketing and most of the fundraising for several years. Stepping back was emotional. But it was the right thing to do for the organization and its mission.

One Comment

  1. James Whitfield

    Another great post. I have a thought to share which may or not be of value.

    This month and last, you make the point that, for a CEO, getting a new Board Chair is similar to getting a new boss. I have seen Board Chairs who misunderstand their role and perceive themselves as the CEO’s supervisor or manager, effectively making them something like the Chief, Chief Executive Officer. I suspect your experience is similar to mine in that an effective Chair is a great liaison between the CEO and their boss, the Board.

    Maybe in a future post you can provide some guidance to new Board Chairs to help them clarify the difference between being a “Boss” (in terms of being a manager of the CEO), and being a “Leader” (in terms of partnering with the CEO to help provide direction and build consensus among Board members while also being a liaison between the Board and CEO).

    Again, just a thought. Thanks for considering.

    Looking forward to even more of your great work in 2023.

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