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Four Fundamentals for a Strong CEO-Board Chair Relationship

By Wendy-Jo Toyama, CAE

The CEO and board chair ensure that an association’s staff and board are aligned and focused on a shared vision, so it’s important that they have a healthy relationship. These four principles can help build one.

While an association CEO technically works for the board, her relationship with the board chair is critical since they will be working together to guide the organization.

Ideally, it should be a partnership. As with other relationships, there may be bumps in the road and disagreements along the way, but with a backbone of trust and effective communication, a CEO and board chair can weather the storm and come out stronger as a result. Here are four fundamentals for building a strong relationship.

Foster a connection. It may seem obvious, but CEOs and board chairs must really get to know each other. Because associations can be political, it may feel safer to fly below the radar and build a relationship based solely on a professional focus. But it’s important to take time to get to know your chair and let that person get to know you. 

Several CEOs make a case for hitting the road and visiting their chairs. American Counseling Association CEO Richard Yep, FASAE, CAE, suggests this tactic and says knowing what your board chair’s office looks like, who his colleagues are or where he lives can help make the connection even stronger. If your chair has a one-year term, a trip like this might help jumpstart the relationship. Be sure to share your values and talk about what is important to you. Also, discuss what keeps you up at night and what you do outside of work.

Set boundaries. While I make myself available to my chair most evenings and weekends, not every CEO will want to do this. That’s why it’s important to think about what works for you. For example, do you prefer to call or text? Talk with your chair and agree on preferred communication tools and what hours are off limits.

Boundaries also extend to how work gets done. At times, a new chair can be overly energetic about operational details. Yep recommends gently reminding him that employees are there to take care of the details, so he can focus on the organization’s mission and strategic direction.

It may seem obvious, but a board chair and CEO must form a connected relationship. Take time to get to know your CEO, and let that person get to know you.

To make sure everyone stays in their lane, Tim Herd, CEO of the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society, developed a board-executive partnerships matrix. It details responsibilities of both parties, as well as any joint roles in key areas of responsibility, such as governance, personnel, finance, and committees and task forces.

Create open lines of communication. Two-way communication and active listening skills are essential. Conduct listening tours to get an idea of how your chair prefers to receive feedback and also to ask how you’re doing as CEO—and also where you can improve. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. One of my chairs shared that when something isn’t working, being direct in feedback can help get things back on the right track.

Gregg B. Balko, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering, shared that CEOs, no matter how experienced, benefit from keeping ears open to actively listen.

It’s also important to know your board chair’s preferred style of communication. Some choose email, while others gravitate toward phone calls. A structured agenda provided a day in advance may be critical for some, and others may be more comfortable with a conversational approach.

Ultimately, it is essential that there are no surprises, which means transparency is imperative. Think a few steps ahead and identify when it is appropriate to inform them about an emerging issue or problem. And remember, not all issues rise to that level, but it’s your job to know which ones do and keep your partner informed.

Build trust. Finally, building trust means checking your ego at the door and actively learning what the chair’s expectations are in the year ahead. Herd says he strives to cultivate a cooperative relationship at all times. One of my past presidents also shared that it is OK to pull each other back on track. There can be value in exploring options when there is a mutual commitment to well-defined goals and a relationship of courage and trust.

This article originally appeared on ASAE's website.

Copyright ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership (March 27, 2019), Washington, D.C.

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