Published: August 25, 2022
By Sheri Sesay-Tuffour, PhD, CAE
As the highest-ranking executive in an organization, a chief executive officer (CEO) has the ultimate authority in driving strategy and managing day-to-day operations. However, a successful CEO does not act alone.
The CEO reports to a governing board of directors, led by its chair, that works to establish the mission and strategic direction of an organization. The dynamic between these two central figures is the single best sign of a healthy organization and critical to long-term success. Yet the relationship between CEO and board chair is not always a successful partnership.
Have you ever found yourself in the position to ask: Does the board chair trust me? Why can’t the chair understand that the decisions I make are what’s best for the organization? Why is the chair telling staff how to do their jobs?
When a rift develops between the CEO and the board chair, tension and mistrust result in a dysfunctional relationship that jeopardizes the organization.
Officially, the board chair is responsible for managing the board — on behalf of stakeholders, and providing input and consultation that is expert, independent and external to the organization. The CEO is responsible for running the organization and driving the strategic agenda. So why do CEO/chair relationships fall apart?
Most often there is a lack of clarity and agreement on their roles. Other contributing factors may be divergent or incompatible goals, miscommunication or internal politics. At the core of a dysfunctional relationship, however, is a lack of mutual respect, trust and communication.
Laying the Foundation: The Role of the CEO in Establishing a Strong, Effective, Strategic Board
An active, engaged and high-functioning board is a tremendous asset to the CEO and the association. Yet board members and chairs rotate on and off according to term limits. One of the challenges of board transitions is preserving the culture and values of the organization within the new board.
The CEO, as the constant in the leadership equation, is in a prime position to take the initiative in cultivating a strong and effective board, beginning with their relationship with the board chair. The CEO can proactively set the tone for the relationship, nurturing trust, establishing the tenor of dialogue, and defining the expectations for board composition, orientation and more. The CEO should begin the process before the board chair assumes the role, rather than when the chair settles into place.
It is always a challenge to shape a productive relationship with a new business partner, especially one with the power to hire and fire you. Your ability to establish a strong and effective relationship with your board chair will depend on your approach. Be thoughtful, respectful and acknowledge that trust takes time to build. Effective communication is critical to the partnership, and therefore to your success.
When the CEO/chair relationship is strong, the organization benefits from having twice as much talent at its highest levels. Specific actions a CEO can take in laying the groundwork for a healthy CEO/chair relationship include:
Building mutual respect. Each chair brings a unique set of skills, experiences, values and leadership style to the organization. Respect one another’s similarities and differences. Trust each other’s abilities to lead your respective teams. Make your chair feel connected to the organization and staff. Consider making senior staff members accessible at board proceedings or informal meetings.
Instilling trust. The most successful relationships are those founded on trust. It is inherent in every action that we take and affects everything we do. Trust is established over time through a series of successful experiences and must constantly be reinforced. Encourage open and honest dialogue that will allow you to get to know your chair better. Treat your board chair as you wish to be treated.
Recognizing shared goals. Acknowledge that each of you have a vested interest in the organization’s future success. You will each, respectively, play a role in advancing the organization’s mission and driving the strategic agenda. Both will be expected to uphold the association’s guiding principles and core values. Together, you have a responsibility to maintain a healthy organizational culture based on mutual respect and trust.
Clarifying structure, roles and accountability. Be clear on governance verses management responsibilities. The board chair, in leading the board, advises and governs through vision setting, advancing strategy, setting policy, providing financial oversight, and ensuring adequate resources for the organization (including the hiring and evaluation of the CEO). The CEO, in leading the staff, manages the operations of the organization, directing the staff, leading the development and implementation of the organization’s strategy, evaluating organizational priorities and success measures, developing the organizational culture, and providing corporate oversight of the organization’s affairs.
Communicating openly and honestly. Good communication is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Always be open and honest and make sure to listen. Discuss each other’s preferences and expectations on how best to work together. Establish a consistent pattern of communication that will ensure both of you have the information you need to fulfill your respective responsibilities. For example:
- Determine what communication method and time of day works best for the board chair.
- Create a routine schedule for each other to talk informally about organizational performance and other matters of importance such as finances, staff culture, key developments or potential challenges. Make it an ongoing priority to deepen your board’s understanding of your organization’s programs — what you do, why it matters and how you know you are effectively advancing your organization.
Partnership Is a Two-Way Street: Actions Chairs Can Take to Enhance the CEO/Chair Relationship
Serving on a board of directors is a privilege, and with it comes considerable responsibility to ensuring an organization’s long-term success. While the fundamentals of the board chair role remain unchanged, boards, like the organizations they steward, are being called upon to act on complex social, political, environmental and moral issues facing the world. They are being held responsible for ensuring their organizations are functioning with a socially meaningful purpose.
Now more than ever, boards need future-ready leaders who understand how the world is changing. This involves partnering with the CEO to take on a more ambassadorial role in the organization. The building blocks of a healthy relationship — mutual trust, respect and strong communication — that apply to your CEO apply to the chair as well. Additional thoughts for a successful relationship include:
Set an inspiring tone. How the board and the CEO interact sets the tone for the entire organization. The two roles must be complementary. Discuss how both of you as a team can leverage your unique assets and experience to advance the mission. Trust in your CEO’s decisions, even when things go wrong. Set the CEO up for success with clear expectations, ongoing support and encouragement, and regular feedback.
Maintain open communication. Establishing a relationship built on trust takes time, and that trust stems from communicating regularly and honestly. Stay informed of new programs and activities, developments in the organization, stakeholder relationships and industry trends, particularly in today’s ever-changing business environment.
Respect the role of the CEO. Maintain a balance of duties where you can fulfill your oversight responsibilities without micromanaging. For example, a board chair should be careful not to undermine a CEO by giving direct orders to a staff member. The distinct roles and responsibilities should be made clear to board members and staff alike so there is no misunderstanding.
Lead with intent. Establish practices to inspire, energize and challenge your organization’s board to leverage their knowledge and expertise toward greater purpose. This includes developing specific knowledge about the business and the industry it serves. Ensure board meetings are well organized and productive, that they facilitate meaningful, diverse and authentic discussion, and lead to efficient decision-making. Show respect for your peers by making sure all feel engaged and valued. Respect and value the contributions of staff as well.
A Solid Partnership Pays Off
The CEO/chair relationship is a fundamental enabler of an organization’s ability to thrive and achieve its mission. The transformative shifts taking place in the workplace are not only impacting CEOs but adding new dimensions to board leadership and governance, causing the role of the board and its chair to equally evolve.
Increasingly, CEOs and board chairs must work as a united and effective team to address more externally focused issues and the ever-changing needs of stakeholders. Establishing mutual respect and trust, and maintaining open and honest communication will help to establish a solid foundation for a strong, effective CEO/chair relationship.