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Research Friday: The Board Chair and the CEO: When is a Team Relationship a Team ... Really?

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert from our academic faculty to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

"None of us exists independent of our relationships with others. In each of these relationships we are different, new in some way."

The relationship between a nonprofit Board Chair and the CEO is an incredibly important one. I have found no studies that dispute this. In fact, it ought to be a fun, exhilarating, rewarding experience for both members of this important leadership team. So, are we accomplishing this goal?

ASU is a research university that puts significant effort into true academic research. However, there are times when simple surveys produce very meaningful information — and can provide the basis for deeper research projects. And it is a simple (and small) survey upon which this blog is based.

The Organization for Nonprofit Executives (ONE) recently performed a survey of its members to help gather information for my presentation on the Board Chair/Chief Executive relationship. Thirty-two CEOs responded, and the results were extremely informative, leading to the greater question of how often this relationship is fun, exhilarating, and rewarding. The answer? For the CEO, not as often as one might imagine.

When asked their feelings about this relationship, approximately 1 in 4 CEOs responded with very positive statements (paraphrased) such as:

  • Chair is supportive and helpful.
  • The challenge? Keeping up with the Chair.
  • Chair is very busy, but very accommodating.
  • Relationship built on mutual trust and respect.

However, the remainder indicated some sobering realities with statements (paraphrased) such as:

  • Chair lacks vision.
  • Inconsistent, if any, support.
  • Organization not a top priority for Chair.
  • Unrealistic expectations; Chair doesn't know CEO job.
  • Micro-managing Chair.
  • Chair has own personal agenda.
  • Criticism without recognition.
  • No time to meet with me.

And the most frequent amount of communication is 1-2 times a week, by phone, text, or in person.

How Often # Responses % Responses
More than 2x/wk 3 9.4%
1 or 2x/wk 19 59.4%
Less than 1x/wk 10 31.2%
Total responses 32 100.0%


Consistent communication appears to be an indicator of success, as noted by several respondents who shared the positive personal and professional development experiences emanating from this relationship. Some of the responses (paraphrased):

  • I have learned something from each of our Chairs.
  • Chairs have helped me to get out of the rut ... to learn external focus.
  • Lifetime friends/colleagues with our Chairs.
  • Has been wonderful when the relationship was a partnership and in the best interest of the organization as an agenda.
  • As Chairs have learned about the CEO job, they have prioritized more time for Chair service.
  • My skills have been enhanced as I have learned about the businesses of my Chairs.
  • A real appreciation for weekly meetings; this saves time in the long run.

One of the most powerful responses was from a CEO who stated, "I believe I should be the wind beneath my Board Chairs' wings ... here to serve and offer opinions. Making heroes of the Chair is my primary goal. It's not about me ... but the organization."

What does it take for the CEO to be the "wind beneath the wings?"

  • Time
  • Tenacity
  • Empathy
  • Humor
  • Focus
  • Respect
  • Transparency

Some thoughts for Chairs, in assisting with this team relationship:

  • Commit to the organization's vision/mission.
  • Focus on the strategic plan as leading the leadership.
  • Stay consistent in prioritizing time with the CEO.
  • Assist with problem-solving.
  • Provide support.
  • Listen.
  • Offer kind, constructive critiques.
  • Keep no secrets.

How to achieve a real team relationship? Some suggestions for the CEO:

  • Define the Chair's responsibilities, in advance.
  • Discuss the following questions: 
    • What do you require from this position as Chair?
    • What does the Chair position require of you as a person?
    • What do you require from me as CEO?
    • From your point of view as Chair, what do I as CEO require of you as Chair?
  • And ... agree that there will be no surprises in the relationship.

In summary, the Chair leads and reflects the Board with full commitment to the organization’s vision and mission; has an understanding of the essential legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities of the Board; and works through policy, guidance, and support. The CEO helps develop the Board, assuring the vision and the mission are ubiquitous; has regular communication with each Board member, assuring they are oriented and trained in their responsibilities; respects and supports the legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities of the Board; and implements policy, accepting parameters and guidance from the Board. Ultimately, each must respect the professional demands each has in their own right.

As noted earlier, there is much to be learned about this very important — if not most important — leadership team that could benefit from further research.

^ [1] Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2006
^ [2] Steven Bowman, Board Chair and CEO Working Together Productively, Conscious Chief Executives E-Zine, Issue 02


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