Board chairs: passing the baton

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One of the most important relationships in any nonprofit organization is between the board chair and the CEO or Executive Director. And that relationship can be tricky…sometimes very tricky. Now that fall is around the corner, many organizations are preparing for the annual ritual of passing the baton to a new board chair at the end of the year.

Most organizations treat this as a transactional activity focused around some kind of gift giving, a few words of appreciation, and perhaps a lunch. “Thanks for your good work…see ya!” The calendar turns over and the CEO now has the uncertain task of engaging with a new board chair who brings a whole new style of leadership, personality, and communication—and the relationship has to work right from the start.

The learning curve of collaboration and teamwork in this set-up is steep, often resulting in little to no tending to the relationship, which creates more stress and tension. Now, this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, CEOs will say they lucked out and got a great chair. Sometimes, CEOs recognize the value of investing wisely in the relationship so that the transition actually strengthens the organization and the relationship with future leaders.

So, let’s talk about the practices that can help you, whether as a CEO, an incoming or outgoing board chair, or someone next in line.

Learn to pass the baton

Passing the leadership baton well is a crucial element of your organizational thriving strategy. A few simple actions can avoid pitfalls and support organizational health, whether transitioning to a new leader or preparing for your departure.

1. Think ahead and make a plan.

Sounds so simple, but we often neglect it. So start preparing now for the year-end transition. Of course, you want to include all the fun stuff; accolades, presies, party vibe, and whatnot. But the real plan includes looping in the current chair, the incoming chair, and the CEO. We suggest a 90-minute meeting focused on connecting as a leadership trio, reflecting on the past year, giving time to the outgoing chair to share their experience, lessons learned, things they wished they’d known, and advice for the incoming chair.

Follow this same outline for the CEO and get their perspective so that the incoming chair can gain insight and understanding into the job at hand. Document any obvious changes for improvement that emerge in the conversation to inform the next step.

2. Define roles and functions.

Nothing is static. However, we have seen more than our fair share of outdated position descriptions, not to mention a complete lack of anything beyond a boilerplate job description for board chairs. So, make it real. Based on what comes from your transition meeting, the board chair and CEO should sit down together to discuss your respective roles and functions in the year ahead. Document them for each other as a way to share accountability, and share them with staff and board to convey clearly how you’ll be working together and who will be doing what functions.

3. Embrace role modeling.

Demonstrate to the board and staff how you, as leaders with complementary functions and roles, are collaborating to lead the organization through the next season, fiscal year, planning cycle, etc.

4. Focus on the relationship.

Much like making a plan, being disciplined in connecting with each other to prepare for executive committee meetings and/or board meetings is central to creating the conditions for effective governance. Having a regularly scheduled Chair/CEO meeting for preparing and troubleshooting, along with a regular cadence of communication, will strengthen bonds and support accountability and transparency.

At first, this might feel a little forced, but give it time. This relationship will start to feel supportive and energizing as confusion and uncertainty fade away. And then you’ll be well on your way to a healthy, dynamic, and alive leadership team.


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Hey there, I'm Kimberley

Welcome! I believe our social sector organizations are at the forefront of making here better. With more than 33 years of diversified fundraising and nonprofit experience, I partner with courageous organizations committed to building clarity and confidence. Let’s connect and chart your nonprofit’s path to thriving. 

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