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The Chair CEO Relationship

“The Chair-CEO relationship” said a client, who was himself the Chair of a Crown agency, “is like a pair of chopsticks. One is much more effective with the support of the other.”

Gaining a better understanding of the Chair-CEO relationship was the reason behind our most recent survey of non-profit leaders. Initially, our plan was to identify the qualities required in a Chair and CEO for their relationship to be a success. However, as our survey progressed, we found something unexpected. As we listened to respondents’ thoughts, one overarching principle seemed to emerge:

The most successful Chair-CEO relationships are built on partnership and a base of shared objectives, or commitments.

In some cases these commitments are formalized, such as in a memo of understanding. Just as often, however, they are implicit. Through our survey, we also found that, in situations where the Chair-CEO relationship had faltered, these commitments were largely absent.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by sharing a short story from one participant:

John was the founder of a respected Canadian organization that grew from two employees to one hundred. For more than 10 years, he had maintained considerable control over the organization and its Board. Initially this model worked well. As time passed, however, Board members began recruiting new Directors from outside John’s immediate circle. Inevitably, the Board took on a life of its own, becoming more progressive and sophisticated. The situation became critical when a long-time ally stepped down as Chair and a new Chair with a broad business background was elected without John’s input.

Over the ensuing months the flow of information between John and the new Chair declined. Divisions emerged between those who supported the “old values” espoused by John, and those who supported the “fresh blood” of the new Chair. A culture that was once respectful and fun became tense and unproductive.

Within a year both John and the Chair stepped down. The resulting leadership vacuum left the organization faltering. Donations declined, and skilled staff departed. With its reputation tarnished, the organization searched for a full year before finding an executive willing to fill the vacant post.