Extraordinary governance requires a strong partnership between board and staff: Part 1

A good working relationship between board and administration is key to fulfilling the organization’s mission.

A board’s primary connection to the staff of their organization is through the CEO, regardless of the title used for that individual. When I use the title CEO in this series of Michigan State University Extension articles, I am speaking about executive directors, administrators, managers, controllers and so on.

This relationship has many facets. The board must hold the CEO responsible for results, and has the prerogative to also require certain types of action by staff. A wise board will recognize that this is a two-way street. All of their staff bring skills and knowledge to the job that are extremely important to the organization’s efforts to achieve their mission. BoardSource (an organization with more than 25 years of experience working with nonprofit boards to magnify their impact) calls this two-way relationship “constructive partnership,” and I can think of no better way to describe it. Extraordinary governance requires this kind of recognition of the different roles of board and staff, and the skills each brings to the effort.

A board must function as a single body in this partnership. While each board member brings important knowledge to the effort, their differences must be worked out at the board level, and the board must function as one in their relationship with the CEO.

A few years ago, my pastor was introducing the newly elected board of elders for the year. Following his introduction of each of the individuals, with a few comments about their special contributions to the board, he said, “They are my boss.” I nearly stood and applauded. He had said that they, plural, are my boss, singular. They were accustomed to functioning as one in their interactions with him as the “CEO” of the church.

This is not to say that board members will have no interaction with the rest of the staff. They will, and those interactions are important to their understanding of the day-to-day operations of their organization. It is important to supporting the role of the CEO as supervisor of the staff that the board members keep communication of mission and policy, and all evaluative discussion of the staff within the confines of the board-CEO relationship.

What does this look like in practice? Michigan’s citizens have long held an expectation that their legislators will intercede on their behalf in problem areas with departments of government. There is some organizational value to this when the “CEO” is elected and is not a direct employee of the legislative body.

Local governments in Michigan tend not to have elected CEOs; they are usually appointed. While a board member may find it necessary to communicate problems they have been made aware of to the staff, this needs to be done through a process that enables the CEO to weigh the magnitude of the “problem” and work through department heads to resolve issues, all within the context of working to achieve the mission.

In part two of this series on the board staff partnership, we’ll talk about the role of the chair and some special considerations for counties.

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