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Four Actions You Can Take to Forge a Meaningful Governance Partnership

Four Actions You Can Take to Forge a Meaningful Governance Partnership

Guest Post by Anne Wallestad, President & CEO of BoardSource

Nonprofit Connect is bringing Anne Wallestad to Kansas City on April 26! Click here to learn more and save your seat.

When it comes to cultivating great board leadership and a great partnership between the CEO and the board, here are four things that really matter:


1. First – Focus on Building a Strong Team

There’s no denying that if we don’t have the right staff team, our organizations will not succeed. But we don’t always invest the same energy or focus when it comes to building our board team. And that’s a mistake.

​BoardSource’s research has documented that if a board isn’t thoughtfully comprised as it relates to skill sets, leadership styles, and diversity of thought and background, it is less likely to excel in other areas of board performance.

So what can we do about it?

My advice is to get creative about how you identify and recruit board members. More and more organizations are conducting public searches for board members, much like we do for our staff positions. They are writing job descriptions and utilizing board posting sites (like Nonprofit Connect’s BoardLink) to focus their search and expand their reach. They are engaging board search firms to help them find candidates with targeted skills, and they are ramping up efforts to communicate their mission and the opportunity for board members to make a real difference in a way that will draw in new leadership.

But before you invite individuals to serve on your board, take the time to make sure that they are the right fit. Board orientation starts before someone is elected, by being honest about your board’s expectations — regarding time, fundraising, and overall engagement — and resisting the temptation to downplay them. You’ll save countless hours of misunderstanding and frustration by ensuring that all board members are on board with organizational needs and board member expectations, and that they have the information and knowledge they need to help them succeed.


2. Be Honest and Open about Performance

In BoardSource’s research, we have learned that both CEO assessment and board assessment are major factors in overall board performance and — for CEOs — a major factor in job satisfaction.

CEOs with boards that have done a board self-assessment are

  • 11% more likely to report being “extremely” satisfied with their jobs
  • 14% more likely to highly rate the board’s level of commitment and involvement
  • 14% more likely to highly rate the board’s guidance and support to them as CEO
  • and 17% more likely to say that they are satisfied with the process used by the board to evaluate their own performance.
By committing to regular assessment of both the board and the executive’s performance, you are demonstrating a real and genuine commitment to the organization’s performance. The executive can’t do it alone. Nor can the board. By assessing in both directions, the board and its members are sending a signal to the executive — and to themselves – that they are serious about their leadership role, and that they are committed to doing their part to making the organization as strong and effective as possible. 

3. Invest in Relationships

One of the unique aspects of the board-executive partnership is that — for many organizations — they only see each other a few times a year. And certainly, most board members don’t have day-to-day exposure to the executive. This means that boards and executives have to work extra hard to cultivate open communication, honesty, and trust — the bedrock of a strong working relationship.

Executives should make an effort to reach out to each board member periodically to build that relationship and get a better understanding of each other’s’ perspectives. Get into the habit of reaching out to each individual board member for a coffee or phone check-in at least a few times a year; just to build the relationship.

And board members, this goes for you too. Make an effort to reach out to the executive to offer congratulations on a job well done, or to send a note of support if you know they are facing an organizational or personal challenge.

Board chairs, you can play an especially important role here, as your relationship with your executive sets the tone for the rest of the board and sends a clear signal to the executive about how the board values the executive as a leader. Investing in a relationship that is supportive and mutually respectful is absolutely essential to your executive’s — and your organization’s — success.


4. Finally, Focus on What Really Matters

At BoardSource, we talk a lot about engaging the board in meaningful work. Tapping into board members’ expertise to tackle real questions and issues that are facing the organization. Leveraging their influence and access to move the organization’s mission forward.

We say that board members will be more engaged, happy, and fulfilled if we do that. And of course that’s true. But that’s not actually why we do it. We engage the board in meaningful work to position it to give the organization what is really needed. To direct energy and focus to the things that matter most to the organization’s success.

And that means simplifying and streamlining the “process” of a board’s fiduciary — or oversight — work, and focusing the board’s time on bringing the unique assets that only the board can offer.

I once heard a nonprofit leader tell a story about a man who volunteered with her organization. The organization had a volunteer night every week, and most of the time, the volunteers were stuffing envelopes for various outreach mailings. After having come regularly over a period of months, this man stopped by the ED’s office to say that he wouldn’t be coming any more, but that he wanted to thank her for the good work that the organization was doing. She thanked him for volunteering, and asked him a bit about himself. She was stunned to learn that he was a recently retired CEO of a Fortune 500 company — a man with tremendous influence, reach and wealth. She couldn’t help herself from saying, “There’s so much you could have done to help our organization…why on earth were you stuffing envelopes?!”

And he replied, very simply: “Because that’s what you asked me to do.”

And that’s exactly what we are doing when we ask our board members to spend any more time than necessary on the process, or administration, of governance…instead of creating opportunities for them to give us what our organizations really need:
  • Their expertise
  • Their perspective
  • Their influence
  • Their commitment
As leaders, we need to be thinking about how we can leverage these incredible assets that each of our board members bring to our organizations, both in and outside of the boardroom. It’s simply too valuable a resource to waste. And, as an executive, the relationship you have with your board affects absolutely everything you do as a leader:
  • What’s the point of learning about building great strategy…if you’re unable to engage and balance the diverse perspectives of your board members?
  • What value is there to learning great communications techniques… if you and your board aren’t clear about your unique and distinct roles as ambassadors and advocates for your missions?
  • And how can you be a truly effective manager and leader…if you haven’t built the kind of partnership with your board that enables you to lead with clarity of vision and unity of purpose?
A truly exceptional partnership between boards and executives takes time. It takes effort. And it’s not easy. But the things that matter most never are. And that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the governance partnership — something that really matters. It matters to each of us as leaders, it matters to our organizations, and it matters to the people and the communities that we serve.

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