The best relationships - of any kind - often take the form of partnerships; during which the parties involved work together to create a particular outcome or reach some type of mutually beneficial goal. The same can be said for the nature of board/staff relationships at nonprofit organizations - the most effective and mutually satisfying arrangements happen between people who take a collaborative approach to their service/work. Contrary to the hierarchical structures found in most organizations, partnerships require open communication, trust, and a willingness by all participants to let go of unnecessary power dynamics.
In this type of supportive atmosphere, board members expend less energy asserting power over staff and more energy empowering them to do effective work. They focus on governance and direction from 30,000 feet, while trusting and respecting the boots on the ground. Most of all, they aim to set up their executive directors for success - as an important means to furthering the organizational mission.
On their surface, boards routinely offer platitudes about inclusivity and respect and they may even give lip service to proclamations of support and camaraderie (all of which apply only to their fellow board members when the rubber meets the road). This disconnect sets the stage for adversarial relationships, mismatched expectations, and unsustainability. Many of the executive directors I’ve spoken to have expressed feeling like they have all of the responsibility and [almost] none of the control - which is neither respectful nor supportive.
So, what does it mean to set an executive director up for success? Every great board partner I’ve worked with understands the importance of elevating and bolstering the work of the executive director (or other paid leader) in order to advance the mission. In fact, there are many practical, substantive elements that all executive directors need in order to be successful - elements that their board partners can help provide.
Here are 8 of them and how you can deliver:
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