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It Takes Two to Make Things Go Right

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In a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), the leadership of a nonprofit organization must be able to be proactive and respond to the happenings. This begins with the leadership dyad of the Board Chair and Executive Director. Together, this leadership team, has the ability to set the tone for the organization and its capacity to meet change head on. Effecting change is not easy, but as partners, they can leverage each other’s expertise and strengths to galvanize the Board for making important decisions, and encourage staff and volunteers to adapt to the changing landscape.

The leadership structure of a nonprofit encourages this shared leadership role. Communities delegate the management of the nonprofit to a Board of Directors, who in turn elect a leader who can represent their interests at times when the full board cannot meet. The board in turn hires a CEO to manage the organization and hire staff to execute the mission. The Board Chair and the Executive Director are then designated as a team to work together, and bridge governance and management together. The success of this partnership relies on what one would expect with a strong team: building trust, recognizing strengths, understanding roles, holding each other accountable, and having each other’s back.

Recently, I spoke with an Executive Director who just completed their strategic plan, where a considerable change in their business model was determined to be a necessary path forward. She attributed the success of this organizational shift to her partnership with the Board Chair, and how the Chair knew that change was needed. Together, their unified approach enabled the board and staff to accept change was needed, and proceed with making it happen. When this partnership is not strong, the burden for not only leading, but being a change agent, falls on the shoulders of one person. Unfortunately, I’ve seen how this goes, and it leads to burn out of either the Board Chair or the CEO.

The Board has an important responsibility in preventing burnout and ensuring this leadership team is effective. Just as a Board evaluates the role and skills needed for a good Executive Director, so too should they consider the responsibilities and character needed to lead the Board. In what way does the Board ensure the new Board Chair has the orientation they need to be a successful leader of the governance team? What mechanisms are in place for the Board Chair and Executive Director to build the positive relationship needed to co-lead? And during their tenure as a leadership team, what means are used to evaluate their shared performance?

Sustainability in a VUCA environment requires the leadership of a nonprofit to be very intentional about strategy and execution choices in order to be effective in mission delivery without sapping resources. Nurturing the Board Chair/Executive Director leadership team to make sure their partnership is strong and working well is a no-cost task, yet an extremely critical element for success.