Building Mission-Critical Relationships with Chief Staff Officers
The relationship between a board of directors and its chief staff officer (executive director, CEO, etc.) is crucial to an organization’s success. Conflict and mistrust within this relationship can derail progress on initiatives at all levels and hinder an association’s growth. Board members and the chief staff officer do not have to be great friends, but mutual respect and trust is necessary. The chief staff officer also has to understand and appreciate the board’s knowledge of the industry, and the board has to do the same with the operational and strategic talents that the chief staff officer brings to the table.

Below are tips that boards and chief staff officers can use to build and strengthen their relationships:
  1. No surprises: Both parties have to keep each other informed. A good chief staff officer knows to share important information – whether good or bad – with his or her board in a timely manner. Similarly, a chief staff officer does not like hearing about a problem for the first time at a board meeting.
  2. Get on the same path: Periodically review the strategic plan together. Is the board going one way and the chief staff officer another? Make sure both parties are in agreement on how to move forward.
  3. Talk to each other on a regular basis: Set up a standing call with board leadership and the chief staff officer, be it weekly, monthly or whatever works best. This is the time when everyone can share information that both parties need in order to operate effectively.
  4. Encourage ongoing, candid feedback and communication: Outside of your regular check-ins and meetings, establish a mechanism to secure feedback. The board should also assess itself and its performance – and that of the chief staff officer – regularly. A board survey of the chief staff officer’s performance can go a long way to surfacing issues. The results should be shared with the full board and the chief staff officer to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding areas of success and improvement.
  5. Get to know each other outside of the board room: Use board dinners, receptions and lunch breaks during meetings to gather in a social setting and talk about yourselves, not just your association.
  6. Show appreciation: Board members and chief staff officers should remember to thank each other for their service, individually, via written notes. This small gesture can mean a lot to all parties involved.
  7. Give the process time: Just like in your regular life, forming a trusting partnership does not happen overnight. It is important to give the relationship-building process time to take root and grow.
These simple guidelines can help build a strong relationship between a board and its chief staff officer. Ultimately, this relationship creates a positive working environment that can enable a board to deliver optimal benefits to the members it serves.


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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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