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Surrounded by Revolutionary War battlefields, I joined a dozen faith-based nonprofit leaders from across the country for a unique learning experience. 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 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.

Driving to the event, I wondered how many 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 operating in a rapidly shifting culture.

But the issue that felt 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 my sense that I was receiving conflicting counsel from several board members. How was I supposed to follow the directions of my “bosses,” when one board member’s advice sometimes contradicted another’s?

Given my deep respect for each board member, and knowing each had the organization’s interests in mind, I was confused. There was no question that our intentions were all in the right place, but our practices were leading to conflict and confusion.

Arriving at the retreat center, 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 unique.

It quickly became clear that we were each describing variations on 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 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, their 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, David Weekley and I have been working on a simple book to help leaders develop a vibrant board-CEO relationship. Today, we are launching this book with the 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
  2. Clarity, Not Confusion
  3. Consistent Communication, Not Mystery
  4. Accountability, Not Platitudes
  5. Healthy Conflict, Not Kumbaya
  6. Prepared, Not Panicked
  7. Involved, Not Detached

Ultimately, for the board-CEO relationship to truly flourish, these practices need be be built on a foundation of service. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Honor one another above yourselves.”[i]

                                                                                                                                                                

B amp CEO CoverF

Today, we launch The Board and the CEO. To learn more about how to successfully navigate the board-CEO relationship, please visit: http://www.peterkgreer.com/board-ceo/

Seven Practices to Protect Your Organization’s Most Important Relationship

By Peter Greer and David Weekley

Available Now!

 

[i] Rom 12:10 NIV

At a gathering of ministry leaders and CEOs, the facilitator asked all participants to write down the primary challenge they face. Over 70 percent responded their greatest problem had something to do with their board. I wasn’t surprised.

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Just to clarify, I have a fantastic board. They are sold out on the mission. They give generously. In no way are they a “rubber stamp” board, and they push me to think critically, provide key insights, and encourage our team. They are people I deeply respect and admire (and I’m not just saying that because my annual appraisal is coming up soon!).

From my service with HOPE, but also as a board member of Edify, LifeNet, Esperanza International, and several of our global microfinance institutions, I’ve grown in my understanding of how valuable a board can be. But I believe the challenges many executives face with their boards results from a structure where one individual reports to a group of diverse and driven people. Organizational design is notoriously complicated when there are multiple reporting relationships. We speak about “the board” in the singular sense, but it’s composed of multiple people with different perspectives.

So whether you report to a board or are a board member, I was thinking about five tips to strengthen board governance:

  1. Embrace debate. If there are no dissenting voices, you do not have a healthy board. Debate strengthens and clarifies the mission. There should be a few sparks when iron is sharpening iron.
  2. Move forward together. When decisions are made, it is critical that there is an overarching spirit of unity. Board members and staff follow the collective mandate after it has been properly discussed and decided.
  3. Over-communicate. After a friend stepped down as CEO of another nonprofit, he shared one of his greatest faults of leadership was he did not spend sufficient time communicating with the board. These are key relationships. And they require a healthy amount of the chief executive’s time. For me, I have weekly lunches with our board chair and participate in each committee meeting. If the board is functioning properly, there should be no surprises at a board meeting.
  4. Clarify process. If there is ambiguity regarding the responsibilities of the board and management, you are heading towards unnecessary conflict. Up front, it’s critical to determine the board’s role. For most boards I’m on, the board focuses on organizational identity, strategic planning, budget allocation, risk assessment, and holding the president responsible to implement the plan.
  5. Choose wisely. Especially with smaller and active boards, it’s crucial to have board members who are all in. Beyond capacity and heart, the right chemistry must exist between board members. This is difficult to assess and so walking slowly through the board recruitment process and ensuring multiple “interviews” with prospective board members is so important.

If you’re interested in growing as a board member, consider the following resources:

If you’ve served on a board or reported to one, what am I missing? How else can board members become even more helpful in achieving your mission?