Sure, to be an effective working team, nonprofit board chairs and executive directors need to understand their roles, responsibilities, job descriptions and traditional boundaries. But some of the most effective nonprofits have a board chair-chief executive relationship that goes way beyond neatly striped lanes.
While we think of younger, less sophisticated organizations as having board leaders involved in the day-to-day staff operations, a study of 16 nonprofit board chairs and executive directors conducted in 2005 showed that the most highly effective leadership teams included board chairs deeply involved in working with the staff -- and executive directors working with them in direct contact with other board members and diverse members of the community.
Not only did these board and staff leaders not stay in their lanes, but they went way off the road.
How could that work?
To navigate the complex nonprofit landscape of board/staff/community/mission/financial interconnections together, an organization's two top leaders must forge a very strong relationship, one that is built on trust as much as clarity.
Describing the research results, consultant Mary L. Hiland illustrates the correlation between leadership pairs with more trusting relationships with organizations that were more impactful. In these relationships, a focus on shared leadership -- in the biggest sense -- took precedence over simply managing agendas and duties. The board chair and the executive director worked together in engaging multiple groups towards achieving the organization's mission and goals, whether staff, board, or community members.
She concludes with a call to action for these key leaders to prioritize building their relationship and making it as strong as it possibly can be:
"Trustworthiness is the basis of effective leadership. Nonprofit leaders are stewards of the well-being of individuals and our communities: board chairs and executive directors comprise the key leadership fulcrum of nonprofit organizations. It is a myth that what is personal is not professional and what is professional is not personal. The potential to leverage the board chair-executive director relationship and to increase the nonprofit organization's stock of meaningful and productive relationships is great and unrealized. Building and nurturing this relationship must be a priority. (italics added)"
To build this kind of relationship takes time. It requires mixing the personal and professional. It takes communicating at numerous levels -- not just exchanging information and knowledge, but ideas, feelings, intuitions and aspirations. It's a lot to ask of two busy people, but this kind of investment builds trust and strength in this relationship that can be far-reaching.
One good leader is a good thing to have. Two good leaders together -- in a trusting relationship with clear shared goals -- is unstoppable.