The Strauss Blog

Association Leadership Creates A Top Performing Association

One key is the relationship between the board chair and chief staff officer

The best sign of a healthy association is a strong partnership between the board chair and the chief staff officer (often called Executive Director). Strong partnerships are fostered by maintaining an open stream of communication, by collaborating to achieve organizational goals, and by establishing a sense of mutual trust throughout the organization. Organizational effectiveness could be at stake if any of these components are missing within an association. Through my experience as an association manager, I have observed first-hand the how-to’s of organizational success.

How can you create and foster a successful working relationship with association board leaders?

A great working relationship with your board leader is imperative to meeting the objectives of the association. By fostering a relationship early on and winning a new board chair’s commitment, the association will be enabled to meet its goals while fulfilling the mission simultaneously. Developing an open and transparent connection will ensure that the two entities work together towards the mission of the association. It is important to gain the assurance that the board chair and executive director are ready and willing to tackle challenges and to create new successes of the association as a team.

Building a trusting and open communication channel will help to eliminate issues that will ultimately affect the association. For instance, having a dictatorship-type relationship between the board chair and the association leader will create a dynamic similar to working for a controlling and overbearing boss. This could include blaming the executive director for any issues that occur, not listening to input, and not responding to recommendations that the chief staff officer provides to improve current practices. This also encourages “board bullying”, where the entire board feels that they can speak to the association manager as an inferior, instead of two leaders working towards a shared vision. Role clarity, and developing a productive and effective relationship is necessary within a board, and specifically necessary between board leader and the association leaders.

What does a successful relationship between board and chief staff officers look like?

In a successful board/staff leader rapport, the executive director focuses on leading staff, instead of managing the board. The association manager can look to the board chair as a partner that understands the board’s supporting role, which is to ensure that the executive director has the tools to succeed while avoiding overwhelming amounts of input.

It takes time and commitment to create a relationship that works. All relationships require an investment, whether that be getting to know members, or participating in an event such as The Symposium for Chief Staff & Chief Elected Officers presented by Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE)

Most board leaders are willing to commit to healthy functional relationships, but few follow a structured process to achieve that, that clarifies their role or teaches the two to work together productively. There are good resources available to assist with that including the following article for more information on the Symposium for Chief Staff & Chief Elected Officers: http://strauss.ca/importance-role-clarity-association-boards-committees/

As an association manager, I work with many boards of directors and understand the importance of developing strong working relationships with board leaders to better fulfill the mission of the association. I have a Leadership Certificate for Non-Profit Chief Executives via Board Source, and have attended many CSAE events that focused on board leadership and creating a working dynamic with board chairs. The best thing about these events is that board leaders can also attend to learn how to apply their volunteer hours towards creating unity with the association manager, which, in turn, only betters the association.

I’ve learned from this training and my experience that in my role as an association manager that it is important to have an open communication channel between the board leader and executive director. In the early stages of a board chair’s term, figure out the best way to communicate with one another. In some cases, it could be a weekly phone call, coffee, or email report, whatever it is, it must remain consistent and reliable. Use these regularly scheduled meetings to discuss upcoming meeting agendas, outstanding action items and new endeavors in the association, such as an added member benefit.

How can you extend this relationship to the rest of the board of directors?

In addition to short weekly meetings with the board chair, the association leader should attend all board meetings. By being present at board meetings, chief staff officers have the opportunity to be part of an entire team where all are working toward the association’s strategic goals. Staff members serve as the experts. They have the internal, detailed information that allows the board to form the big picture. Being in attendance also helps form and advance the relationships between the board and the association leader. This also provides an opportunity for the incoming board chair to begin to familiarize themselves with the working relationship between the current board chair and association leader and see how it positively influences the association.

Creating and maintaining effective working relationships with chief staff officers is the key to a top performing association.

There are countless findings on how to create and maintain these relationships, all concluding that if a relationship of trust and open communication exists early in the board term, the association will flourish, and more organizational goals will be achieved.