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The Keys to a Good Board-Executive Director Relationship
A successful association is founded on a good working relationship between board members and the executive director (or chief staff executive). Where a tenuous connection may thwart progress for the entire organization, a strong partnership can propel the association forward. The goal should always be to establish a relationship that’s mutually beneficial, serving the needs of both parties and, by extension, the best interests of the association. Three veteran executive directors — Mike Copps with the Vacation Rental Management Association (VRMA), Laurie Kendall-Ellis with the Alliance for Continuing Education in the Health Professions (Alliance), and Steve Bova with Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP) — share some essential elements of an effective and mutually beneficial board-executive director relationship.
 
Role Clarity

Role clarity is the foundation of a productive relationship between the board and the executive director. If the roles aren’t clear, then the relationship can break down, says Bova. Board members are the experts in the field and are best positioned to focus on strategy, while staff should use their expertise to focus on the tactical and operational aspects of running the association. To ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear, Kendall-Ellis says, it’s critical for board members to familiarize themselves with the association’s foundational documents, including bylaws, policies, procedures, and job descriptions. “That clarity is key so that nobody is stepping on anybody else’s toes,” says Kendall-Ellis. While this ground should certainly be covered during board orientation, Copps adds, board members should regularly review and discuss roles, responsibilities, and governance issues throughout the year.
 
Also, continuity from one board to the next is critical to achieving the long-term goals of the association, Bova says. Thus, as stewards, board members — especially board chairs — should avoid coming into their roles with an agenda or pet project. “The board changes from year to year,” says Bova, “so one of the most disruptive things the executive director can experience is a stop and start every year to adjust to a president-centric board,” in which the chair drives the agenda.
 
Frequent, Open, and Honest Communication

Open and regular communication between the board and the executive director is essential to building trust. To facilitate good communication, FICP has a policy that details how certain information will be communicated throughout the year. Also, Bova shares a monthly “Leadership Letter” with board members that updates them on all pertinent matters. That’s in addition to regular emails, calls, and face-to-face meetups. “I’m always asking the board if they have enough information. Is it presented in the right format? Is it too much or not enough?” Frequent communication with the entire board builds strong relationships with individual board members, not just the chair. “The better you get to know each other, the more it helps the culture,” says Bova. “Some really strong relationships are formed between executive directors and board members that last beyond when their terms end.” He encourages all board members to reach out to him, even on a personal level, because it creates comradery, and someday one of those board members may become chair.
 
The frequency and methods that executive directors communicate with board members vary depending on the association — or from board to board. For the Alliance, Kendall-Ellis holds regular meetings with the board chair and converses over email with the other board members, in addition to face-to-face discussions at the various meetings and events throughout the year. She also encourages the chair and vice chair to connect with each other routinely, so the leadership transition is smooth. “And I touch base at the end of every year with each board member to review how the year went,” Kendall-Ellis adds. “It’s critical to create good communication channels to ensure that the relationship is successful. If somebody has a level of discomfort about anything, you need to address it because that negativity could start to permeate the relationship.”
 
Finally, be honest and open. If board members or the executive director ever feels that the other is holding back information, that’s a big trust killer, Bova says. They should always be frank about challenges and there should be no surprises. Meanwhile, outside the board room, confidentiality must be practiced. There are times and ways to communicate board information, but it shouldn’t be over cocktails at a reception or some other unauthorized way.
 
Engagement

A board’s effectiveness can be measured by how active, engaged, and strategic, its members are, says Copps. To be fully engaged, board members should have all the information they need before coming into the boardroom. If executive directors communicate updates on the programs and performance metrics on a regular basis, board members will not only be more knowledgeable and prepared, they’ll be ready to focus on strategy at meetings. “Engagement shouldn’t be about asking all these programmatic questions regarding performance and financial reports at meetings,” Copps says. “It should be strategically focused engagement. If an executive director is being proactive and the board members are being reactive and consuming information in advance, then the board is really going to be engaged when they meet.”
 
Further, the executive director and the board chair must be aligned on all matters. Copps meets with the VRMA board chair before every meeting to not only develop the agenda, but also to walk through it and talk about potential pitfalls and what to do if the meeting gets off track or bogged down. “It’s important to empower the chair to keep things moving forward, because otherwise you can get stuck in the weeds and it can throw everything off and leave less time for strategic discussions,” Copps says.
 
Kendall-Ellis concurs, adding that both the chair and the executive should work together to facilitate active participation on the board are on any given topic. “If anybody has an opinion that’s divergent from the rest of the board, it’s the role of the executive director and the chair to make sure that the alternative opinion is heard. When that happens, the conversation can head in an entirely new direction and result in a better outcome.” Ultimately, she says, the goal is to achieve consensus and have the board and executive director speak in a unified voice. “We are both working toward the priorities that are going to advance the organization and sustain it.”
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JULY/AUGUST 2019 EDITION
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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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