January 23, 2012

For Executive Directors and Boards, Chairmen Matter

Recently I presented the findings of Daring to Lead 2011, a national study of nonprofit executives that I co-authored, to more than 150 executive directors and board chairs.

As I prepared that presentation, I found myself wishing we had done more analysis of executives' responses about their relationship with their board chairs and examined more closely how those responses correlated with executives' happiness in their jobs and satisfaction with the performance of the entire board.

CompassPoint's Marla Cornelius, one of my co-authors, came to my rescue with some additional analysis, and the correlations are striking.

Among the 3,000 executive directors surveyed, a majority (52 percent) characterized their relationship with their board chair as functional. A large minority (39 percent) described the relationship as exceptional, and just 9 percent called it dysfunctional.

Compared with executives who described their board-chair relationship as merely functional, those executives who reported an exceptional relationship were more positive about their jobs in several key areas: Ten percent less felt isolated, 8 percent less felt burned out, and 15 percent more experienced higher overall job satisfaction.

An exceptional relationship with the board chair also had a significant correlation with executive directors' satisfaction with board performance. Seventeen percent more executives who felt they had an exceptional relationship with the chair were very satisfied with board performance over all.

While I've learned not to overclaim what the data prove, many years of experience with executives and boards have given me plenty of evidence that executive directors with strong working relationships with their board chairs are happier in their jobs, are less likely to be burned out, and believe that their boards work better because of the chair's leadership.

Which suggests that we who believe that nonprofits need stronger boards, or are concerned about executive-director overextension and burnout, should view board chairs as key to supporting executives and strengthening boards.

And because board chairs matter so much, we need to create better systems and resources for training and supporting them.

What qualities and skills do board chairs need to be effective in their role, and how can we increase the number of executive directors who have exceptional partnerships with strong board chairs?