How NOT to Fight with Your Board Chair (Part 1)

I vividly remember the first time that I got into a fight with my Board of Directors. And no – it was not a fist fight, and unlike the recent Republican debate, it wasn’t about the size of anyone’s hands. I was still a “new-ish” and young Executive Director, about 27 years old. I was working my butt off and doing the best I could for the organization, but I knew that I didn’t know anything. I was fortunate in that my Board members were committed, hardworking, and brilliant. But I worried that they had too much trust in me. I wanted them to push my thinking, to question my actions, to challenge the organization to do more, and to do it better. And so I got angry with them and told them that I needed them to push back more. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation unfolded after that, but I recall that it was more than a bit uncomfortable.

Over the years, I’ve worked with numerous Executive Directors on projects. I’ve sat in “ED support groups” and I’ve coached ED’s through difficult situations. One of the questions that inevitably comes up is, “Do I need to tell the Board? When do I tell them, and how much do I tell them?”  It is an uncomfortable situation to have to tell your boss that you’re not sure if you’re going to have enough cash to make the next payroll; or that you’ve unexpectedly just lost a major funder; or that one of your key employees is underperforming and severely hurting the organization’s reputation. The Executive Director is forced to make himself or herself vulnerable in these types of situations. But if a strong foundation of trust and open communications have been built, then these types of conversations can be much easier – and, honestly, they shouldn’t be a surprise to the receiving party.

So it was with great interest that I read, “10 Great Board Chair Practices,” by Marla Cornelius. And, quite frankly, I was a bit disappointed. Yes, she does point out important steps such as setting an inspirational tone, fundraising and agreeing to zero tolerance for bad behavior. But this all feels pretty typical. While she suggests it farther down in the article, I would double-stress that that Board Chairs work closely with the Executive Director and establish a partnership of mutual respect and open communication. It is an imperfect system. Acknowledging the power dynamic is critical, since the Board Chair can terminate the Executive Director (with the full Board’s consensus, of course), and ED’s are all too aware of this. But acknowledging this and agreeing to determine how to work together despite the dynamic is critical to a strong working relationship.

**This is the first of two blogs on this topic**

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