Suggestions to Enhance Working Relationship
Between Board Chair and Chief Executive
© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
Inherent Struggles Between Both
Formal Practices and Procedures
that Can Minimize Conflict
Personal Practices to Minimize
If Worse Comes to Worse
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Struggles Between Both Roles
Many experts assert that one of the most important ingredients
to a successful corporation (nonprofit or for-profit) is a high-quality
relationship between the board chair and the chief executive.
However, this relationship has several inherent struggles to overcome.
The chief executive was usually in the organization before the
chair was appointed and will be around after the chair will be
gone. In addition, the chief executive is also much closer to
the day-to-day activities in the organization. Lastly, the chief
executive usually knows far more about the organization’s customers.
Consequently, the chief executive may feel that he or she knows
far much more about the organization than the board chair. Yet,
the board chair is responsible to provide leadership to the board
to whom the chief executive is accountable. The board chair leads
the board which evaluates the performance of the chief executive.
Maintaining a high-quality relationship between the two roles
requires a high level of maturity and understanding from both
people filling those roles.
and Procedures that Can Minimize Conflict
One of the most effective means to minimize conflict
between both roles is to set up formal practices or procedures
that help both people in the roles discern between an organizational
issue and a personal issue. The following suggestions are provided
to help ensure a high-quality relationship between the board chair
and chief executive by establishing formal practices and procedures.
1. Have clearly written and approved procedures for evaluating
the chief executive and in an approach that ensures strong input
from the chief executive.
2. Have regular board training sessions that include overviews
of the roles of board chair and chief executive.
3. When a new board chair or chief executive is brought into the
organization, the two of them should meet to discuss how they
can work together as a team.
4. Agendas for board meetings should be mutually developed by
the board chair and chief executive.
5. The board chair can consult with the chief executive when appointing
(or suggesting to the board) chairs for various committees.
6. Have clear written guidelines about the roles of staff when
they provide ongoing support to board committees.
7. Rotate the board chair position every few years to ensure new
and fresh perspectives in the role.
8. Develop board chairs by having vice chairs for a year who later
become board chairs.
9. Have a board-wide discussion about the frequency and nature
of meetings to be held between the chief executive and board chair.
Avoid frequent, one-on-one meetings that only include these two
people. While it might intuitively seem that meeting with only
these two to cultivate a strong relationship, the risk is too
high that the relationship could become highly personalized and
confusing to other board members. Always write down the highlights
of meetings between the chief executive and board chair and share
these highlights with the entire board.
10. Ensure all board members are trained about the role of the
board, its current committees and their charters and membership,
and that the board chair has basic skills in meeting management.
11. The chief executive and board chair should never conceal information
from the rest of the board. Board members pay prefer to keep certain
information confidential among board members and not tell the
chief executive, but these occasions should be very rare. The
chief executive should never conceal information from the board
— all board members have a right to any information about the
12. Celebrate accomplishments, including by naming the key people
involved in bringing about the successes. Often these people include
the board chair and chief executive.
Practices to Minimize Interpersonal Conflicts
In addition to formal practices to minimize conflicts,
the two people in these two roles can follow certain practices
themselves. If you’re a board chair or chief executive,
1. Practice at least the basic skills in interpersonal communications,
e.g., particularly in listening and giving feedback.
2. Whenever you feel conflict, identify to yourself what it is
that you’re actually seeing or hearing that might
be causing the conflict. This attempt helps to differentiate whether
the source of the conflict is the other person’s behavior or,
e.g., some remnant of a relationship or situation in the past.
(Note that whether the conflict is from the other person or not,
it’s still appropriate to work with the other person to address
at least your perception of a conflict with them.)
3. If you’re feeling uneasy, then say out loud what you’re feeling.
If you feel there’s conflict or tension between you two, name
it out loud. This doesn’t mean your “weaker” or out
of control — quite the contrary. It displays a great deal of
maturity and knowledge about interpersonal dynamics to recognize
and surface conflict in order to mutually resolve it
4. Recognize that conflict is inherent in any successful relationship,
particularly in a board if all members are actively meeting their
responsibilities. The important thing here, again, is to name
it if you think it’s becoming an ongoing problem.
5. Keep perspective that no one should have to continue to experience
continued conflicts with someone in their lives, including the
workplace. Know when to say enough is enough — this limit is
your own and you’re the expert at recognizing it.
6. Continue to try sense if the conflict is around an organizational
issue or is a matter of interpersonal “chemistry”, that
is, you both have such differing natures that you’ll probably
need some outside intervention to work together. (Note that if
this is the case, it will be a tremendous learning curve — but
a precious one — for you to learn to work with such natures that
are so different than your own. That’s one hallmark of diversity.)
Comes to Worse
Obviously, the course of action for a situation such
as this depends to a great extent on the nature of the organization
and the two people involved. If you’re a board chair or chief
executive who continues to feel conflict in working with the other
person, then consider:
1. Approach the other person and ask for five minutes of their
uninterrupted time. Explain your concern, what you see and
hear that leads you to believe there’s continued conflicts
between both of you, what you would like to see or hear
between both of you in the future, and why continued conflict
can be so destructive to the organization.
2. If the other person says there’s no conflict that they are
aware of (whether there really is or not), then assert to them
that you would appreciate it if they changed certain behaviors
when working with you and specifically describe what behaviors
you’d like to see from them. They either will change their behaviors,
in which case things should improve, or they won’t. In which case,
you’ll need to escalate the issue up the organization, if appropriate,
or seek additional assistance about how you plan to handle the
problem, for example, avoid it, confront it further, negotiate
3. If the problem persists, ask to have time with the Executive
Committee to share your concerns. If this isn’t appropriate, consider
approaching two to three board members one-on-one. (At this point,
it’s critical to remember that any “badmouthing” or
“conspiring” against the other person will only end
up hurting the entire board and organization. Therefore, talk
with a friend or take careful time to reflect about what you want
to say and how to say it to the other board members.) Explain
the situation in terms of the behaviors in the issue, not the
personality or character of the other person. Explain what you’ve
done so far to address the issue. Describe your perception of
the results of your efforts with the other person — note that
it’s your perception. Ask for specific advice to address the issue.
At the end of the meeting, echo back to them what you hear them
suggesting. Attempt to follow their advice. Commit to follow up
with them about the results of your following their advice.
4. If the problems persists, you might consider getting outside
help. Note that this may be more constructive than posing the
problem to the entire board where it may cause great confusion
and unease with little or not clear course of action to resolve
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