Surrounded by Revolutionary War battlefields, I recently joined a dozen faith-based nonprofit leaders from across the country for a unique learning experience at the Accord Network's CEO conference. Using the methodology of peer member processing, our two days together would focus on helping each other go to war on the most significant challenges we faced. In preparation for the experience, we were asked to come armed with our response to one simple question: "What is the most significant obstacle you are currently facing?"
In small groups, we would confront these obstacles with the goal of helping each leader discover a positive resolution, or at least identify a few of the next steps to take. When driving to the event, I wondered how many leaders would choose to talk about the seemingly impossible task of balancing work and family. Or how many would focus on the challenges of fundraising. Maybe strategy would come up, or perhaps how to operate in a rapidly shifting culture.
However, the issue that I felt was most urgent was my relationship with my board. We were in a season in which we were facing key decisions and operational dilemmas. Compounding these challenges was the sense that I was receiving conflicting counsel from several different board members. How was I supposed to follow the directions of my board when one member's advice sometimes contradicted another's?
Given my deep respect for each board member, and knowing that each had the organization's best interests in mind, I was conflicted. There was no question that our intentions were all in the right place, but our practices were leading to confusion and conflict.
Upon arriving at the conference, the group of nonprofit leaders began sharing their obstacles, and a pattern quickly began to emerge. One after another, leaders shared that their greatest difficulty related to some aspect of their relationship with their board. Turns out, my challenges were not as unique as I had thought.
It quickly became clear that we were each describing variations of the same theme: the board–CEO relationship is exceptionally challenging. It's a proverbial minefield with the potential to sabotage an organization—creating dissention, thwarting progress, undermining impact and knocking it off mission. And it's not just organizational leaders who acutely feel the challenge associated with this special relationship. Board members often grapple with similar issues. Seldom is their relationship with the CEO easy to manage.
Healthy organizations require a healthy board–CEO relationship. Channeled in the right way, this engagement can result in fresh perspectives and new growth rather than perilous pitfalls. For an organization's health and vitality, there is no more important, or more complex, relationship to navigate.
Over the past year, I worked with David Weekley, founder and chair of David Weekley Homes, on a book titled The Board and the CEO in an effort to help business leaders develop a vibrant board–CEO relationship. With the launch of this book, we hope that it might equip leaders to have an even greater impact. We focus on seven practices found in the healthiest board–CEO relationships.
1. Mission, Not Ego
It's important that your mission remains the primary focus and ultimate goal. Successful relationships set egoism aside and do not let it get in the way of their greater purpose.
2. Clarity, Not Confusion
Everyone—from the CEO to the board members—needs to be clear on their job descriptions. When confusion sets in, miscommunication and mistakes are bound to follow.
3. Consistent Communication, Not Mystery
Keeping the lines of communication open will help to eliminate any mixed messages and ensure no one is left wondering why. Mystery is a simple way to create a greater sense of panic or misunderstanding among a group supposed to be working together.
4. Accountability, Not Platitudes
The CEO and members of the board should hold themselves, as well as one another, accountable. To do so, put healthy processes in place to regularly assess performance and set goals. One member's success is everyone's success, and vice versa.
5. Healthy Conflict, Not Kumbaya
A healthy sense of conflict or respectful disagreement can often spark great ideas. Rather than simple mass agreement, bringing diverse thought processes and differing opinions to the table will lead to more thoughtful and well-rounded decisions.
6. Prepared, Not Panicked
Better to be over-prepared rather than left panicking. While under-preparedness gives off a sense of uncaring, being prepared for every meeting, discussion and decision makes you a valuable team member and offers credibility to your contributions.
7. Involved, Not Detached
When a CEO invites the board into issues of real magnitude, relies upon them to find real solutions, optimistically and transparently works with them and allows them to have a sense of responsibility for the outcome, boards can reach their fullest potential.
Ultimately, for any board–CEO relationship to truly flourish, these practices need to be built on a foundation of service. As the apostle Paul wrote, "prefer one another in honor" (Rom. 12:10b).
Peter Greer is president and CEO of HOPE International, a global Christ-centered microenterprise development organization serving throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Prior to joining HOPE, Peter worked internationally as a microfinance advisor in Cambodia, technical advisor for Self-Help Development Foundation in Zimbabwe and managing director for Urwego Community Bank in Rwanda. He has also co-authored a number of books, including: The Board and the CEO, Created to Flourish, The Giver and the Gift, Mission Drift and Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing. Currently, Peter serves as the entrepreneur-in-residence at Messiah College and as a Praxis Venture Partner.
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