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Leads The Dance. Executive Director Vs. Board Chair

Who leads the dance, the Executive Director or the board chair?

Who is the boss?  Who is really running the show?  Who makes the last call at work? At home? In social settings? Most of us face these types of questions without even realizing it. Exercising power is a topic that can be fraught because it is not always a straight-forward or static issue.

Life happens. Change happens.

Libraries are filled with books on power sharing, power grabbing, and power struggles. Machiavelli’s The Prince is the quintessential playbook for the dark side of politics, which is a discipline dedicated to the study of power. Most families feel like they could write volumes on the topic!

Our focus here is who-is-in-charge in the relationship between a non-profit Executive Director (ED)/CEO and the Board Chair.  And, not surprisingly, there is no easy answer, because —depending on the topic—there needs to be some power sharing.

In short, there needs to be give and take in terms of who is leading the dance.

Most governance research is clear that the ED/CEO is the boss when it comes to an organization’s operations. That includes hiring/firing staff, program management and development, business office activities, marketing and PR, facility oversight, and volunteer management including the administrative aspects around the board. The less the board gets involved in the day-to-day, unless invited by the CEO with the agreement of the Board Chair, the better.

The Board Chair is the voice of the board and is responsible for ensuring the proper evaluation of the ED/CEO, for leading the board’s growth and development through an active Governance Committee.  The Board Chair is also responsible for running effective meetings and building the meeting agenda, in partnership with the ED/CEO, and keeping the board moving forward according to the plan. That is a big job and one that is critically important.

Now, the board chair and the ED/CEO meet in the middle of the dance floor. 

The Board Chair must also lead board members to ensure the fiduciary sustainability of the organization—which means direct involvement in the development process.  But the ED/CEO is also involved deeply in this work and, if there is a staff development leader, he or she will report to the ED/CEO.  According to BoardSource’s research, this also happens to be the area that most board members report that they least like. Hence, the Board Chair must be able to rally the reluctant troops. Meanwhile the ED/CEO must have honest communication with the development staff with clear goals for what the bottom expectations are for the year.

Both leaders have a motivation challenge and some fancy footwork before them.

The other big area of shared leadership is strategic planning. Typically the board is very involved in the construction of the big picture of where the organization is heading. It works much better if the ED/CEO has a hand in the creation of the strategic dance card because it will be on him or her to communicate and implement its goals and integrate it with staff objectives.

Development and Strategic Planning are extremely dynamic processes.  The former is one that most staff and board members would rather avoid.  Why? Because few people enjoy asking for money and it is often the most critical issue on the agenda.  The latter can prove difficult if leaders have different views of where the organization should head.

Not surprisingly these are the two areas where both the Board and the Staff leaders need to coalesce their own styles, ideas and then bring their teams to the floor ready to make necessary moves.  If the two leaders dance well together and can weave their way and communicate well through the fancy steps the performance can be quite elegant.


This blog was co-written by Sarah Griffith and Sonia Stamm as a result of a conversation which was kicked-off by  participation in a webinar presented on May 21,2014 by the Stanford Social Innovation Review “Better Board Governance” with Kim Starkey Jonker, ED Henry Kravis Prize in Leadership; William F. Meehan, III, Director Emeritus, McKinsey and Company and Kathy Spahn, President and CEO, Helen Keller International and 

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Founder and Principal of Stamm Consultancy Inc., a boutique consulting firm established in 2008 to guide nonprofits through critical junctures in their development. With over 25 years of experience in organizational development, Sonia partners with nonprofit boards and executive leadership to facilitate best practices in board development and governance, strategic planning, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. Since almost its inception, she has been affiliated with BoardEffect to share perspective on how boards can best implement board management software in the effort to advance their organizations’ mission.

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