What makes for effective top-level nonprofit leadership partnerships that deliver mission impact for the organization and job satisfaction for both leaders? I’m interviewing board president-CEO pairs to find out.
At the Child Advocacy Center, one effective partnership led to a successful capital campaign to move from “the little yellow house” of the agency’s founding to a purpose-built, expansive $2.5 million facility. Later, another effective partnership helped the CEO finish a long re-accreditation process and take a first-ever sabbatical.
In this interview, Child Advocacy Center CEO Lynn Ayers speaks with her current board president, Cindy Cammack, and a former board president, Jack Shultz. Their conversation reveals:
- The two partners’ management styles and expectations are bound to differ, so talk about them early.
- Micromanagement by the board president or the full board is deadly for the mission.
- Good and bad partnerships have drastic effects on the CEO’s job satisfaction.
Why this matters
Why does this matter? In brief:
- National experts say so: “This partnership is really where management and governance meet,” says David Styers, BoardSource senior governance consultant. “If this relationship is not effective, the organization is not going to be effective.”
- Local experts say so: “That is the most fragile of relationships in a not-for-profit, and therein lies the future of the agency,” says Deane Finnegan, CEO of Leadership Lincoln. Finnegan has 22 years of personal experience with board president-CEO partnerships, and has counseled dozens of other nonprofit CEOs on building effective partnerships, through the informal CEO support group she leads.
- More reasons: Chief executive effectiveness, chief executive job satisfaction, and board engagement. All are covered in the introduction to my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Leadership Pairs for Mission Impact: Effective Nonprofit Board President-Chief Executive Partnerships.
This book will give nonprofit board presidents and chief executives practical tips on developing leadership partnerships that deliver mission impact for their organizations and job satisfaction for themselves. Readers will find stories of partnerships that went well and went poorly—all described by the leaders themselves.
Lynn Ayers is founding CEO of Child Advocacy Center, which ensures small voices are heard by providing a safe, child-friendly location for conducting forensic interviews and medical evaluations for abused children in Southeast Nebraska.
Cindy Cammack is associate director of admissions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She recruits transfer students to UNL, the flagship campus of the University of Nebraska system. She has also served as board president of Junior League of Lincoln and Ladies of Lincoln Golf Association.
Jack Shultz is a labor and employment attorney and president of Harding & Shultz, P.C. His extensive not-for-profit governance experience includes the board presidencies of Lincoln University Club, the Nebraska Club, and Lincoln Children’s Zoo.
Cammack’s board presidency included extensive preparations for a re-accreditation visit by the National Children’s Alliance. During this time the board was helping lay the groundwork for granting Ayers a four-week sabbatical, her first since she founded the Center in 1996.
Shultz’s board presidency was marked by a large capital campaign to move the Center out of the “little yellow house” where Ayers founded it. The destination was a large custom-built facility featuring interview and diagnostic rooms, plenty of office space, and a large training facility.
Interview: Lynn Ayers, Cindy Cammack, and Jack Shultz
What does an effective board president-chief executive partnership look like?
Lynn Ayers: You feel like you are equal partners in the relationship and there’s open, honest and direct communication and there really aren’t surprises either way. There’s mutual respect, where you meet early on to define your roles and expectations, what I need, what I don’t need. I feel I owe the same to the board chair in terms of communication. I don’t want them to be caught off guard by something coming down the pike. So, that kind of give and take.
Cindy Cammack: To me the issue is roles are clearly defined. We’re a volunteer board providing guidance and leadership to Lynn; she manages and supervises her team. We’re not here to get involved in the day-to-day staff activities. I think some individuals coming onto a non-profit board sometimes think that they’re here to manage and run the operation. That is not our job.
Jack Shultz: Everybody has their own “management style,” whatever that is. And so in a partnership that means there are two management styles and they may not be identical. Which doesn’t mean they can’t work, it’s just that you must communicate, that’s it.
Define roles, and I think both parties have to understand what the expectations of them are. The way I always left it with Lynn in terms of expectations was, “You need anything, call me,” and I think we operated pretty well that way. I didn’t have to worry, nor was I qualified to worry about the day-to-day operations. I liked the ability to call her or she could call me and I get an update, know what’s going on, she was always very good about that.
And so if there’s a key phrase in this, it’s communication. And not with another board member as the board chair but directly with your executive director. I’ve been on boards where there was far more communication about the executive director with other board members than there was to the executive director, and that is a problem.
Lynn Ayers: And your point about management style, you’ll hear that from every executive director. One of the challenges of being the ED of a non-profit is that your boss changes every two years. So you know, what Jack expects from me, is different than what Cindy needed from me, looks different from what the next board chair will need from me.
So you really have to sit down early and kind of figure that out. There’ll probably be some missteps and miscues along the way as you’re trying to define that relationship because everybody is a little bit different. But just figuring that out: What does Jack need from me? What does Cindy need from me? Every board chair that I’ve had has been different.
One of the challenges of being the ED of a non-profit is that your boss changes every two years. – Lynn Ayers
What does an ineffective board president-chief executive partnership look like?
Lynn Ayers: I’ve had board chairs who were board chair in name only. They really didn’t want to know what was going on, they trusted me to make every decision. They were great to work with (laughs), but it’s not healthy for an organization.
They were just letting me make all the decisions and they would just sign off on them. That’s not good for an organization. There ought to be some time when your board chair is challenging you and saying, “Yeah, I’m not quite thinking that’s where we need to go with that, but … .” So you can have the extreme, the board chair that fills the chair but really doesn’t perform the role.
And then you have the other extreme, which is the board chair that’s involved or wants to be involved or informed of every single thing that’s going on in the organization down to what happened today at 4:05. And when you have that extreme, a lot of the time and energy of the executive director is eaten up in reporting to a board chair that is micromanaging the organization.
On one extreme you feel totally empowered because you’ve got nobody questioning your decisions and on the other extreme you feel totally disempowered because you don’t feel like you can make any decision without approval. I don’t think either one of those extremes is good for the organization or good for leadership development.
Jack Shultz: Well, it’s never comforting when you come to a board meeting and you get the agenda and the chairman who will run the meeting is looking at the agenda for the first time and says, “What’s this about?”
Lynn always advanced the agenda, we talked about it. We said, “You know, these things can wait,” or, “These things need to move to the top of the agenda,” or, “Here’s some other additions.” If you don’t communicate, you don’t know that.
So you have a board president that has no idea what’s on the agenda today and will run the meeting, or you have someone who comes and has some agenda on almost every item because they break it down in their micromanagement style. The fallout of that is the damage that’s done to the mission of the organization if both parties aren’t fulfilling their partnership obligations.
It doesn’t instill any confidence in your other board members, for starters, in either party, because they think, “Well, either the president doesn’t care or the ED isn’t doing their job.” And that’s a bad situation and you’re thinking, “Why am I on this board if nobody’s really focused?”
The fallout of that is the damage that’s done to the mission of the organization if both parties aren’t fulfilling their partnership obligations. – Jack Shultz
Can you tell a story of a time your partnership worked especially well?
Lynn Ayers: With Jack, it was probably around employee turnover issues. There were some members of the board who, if a personnel issue would come up, it would be, “Fire them now.” It was a “heads will roll” kind of mentality, and I always was kind of caught in the middle.
And Jack is always this voice of reason and he’s an employment attorney. But that isn’t where his voice of reason was coming from. I think it was he’s just very logical. So you have those that react very emotionally toward a situation when you turn to them for help and guidance and those who react very rationally and logically, and I appreciated that I could call Jack and we could talk it through.
And I had an idea and I had a thought and he would say, “Mm, yeah …” (laughs), “How about this?” And then we would process it and talk it about and you know, he was just always really a good sounding board for me because of the way his brain works and I thought it was very helpful.
Jack Shultz: I guess that’s one of the misfortunes of being a lawyer, you quickly learn there are two sides to every story. So you try to anticipate what the alternatives are.
But that was a big issue for us and it was two-pronged. At one time it was the number of turnover and board members were saying, “Gosh, this is the third month in a row we’ve had somebody leave, what’s going on here? You know, that tells a story.” And you know what, it really doesn’t, and particularly in this arena it doesn’t indicate that there’s an issue there.
Without exception Lynn and I would speak about each one of those situations as they happened. A particularly trying experience involved someone who left who had been very successful here but we handled it, I thought, in a professional manner in that we evaluated it and we said, “You know what, sometimes things don’t work.” And it was unpleasant for everybody but I think the process that we had in place worked.
Some people were saying, “Well, Lynn must be a bad manager, we’ve lost three people in three months.” I talked to people in child services and talked to Lynn. She said, “Jack, it’s not that uncommon at all for people to jump around in this arena and some do walk away from it,” which only gave me greater admiration for what she’s done and for how long she’s done it. But I recognized that was true. I mean I started really paying attention in not just this organization but some other similar ones and it [turnover] does [happen]. It was the rule of thumb.
So it wasn’t an executive director issue, but our board was from one end of the scale to the other.
Lynn Ayers: But I also felt like if it was an issue for me, you would have said that. You would have been honest with me, you would have said, “Okay, Lynn, here’s where I think we’ve gone crosshairs here,” (laughs).
Because I don’t think you would have just stood back and let me do something goofy, you would have called me out on something or said, “Okay, you and I need to sit down and talk, there’s something seriously messed up here.”
So I really felt like for that time he was probably one of the best persons to be in that board chair position because he was so logical. I do think he would have called me to task on stuff if he felt I needed to be.
Cindy Cammack: What I needed to do was get Lynn through the re-accreditation process and then get her the heck out of here so that she could have her sabbatical.
At her request, in lieu of a raise we gave her additional time off so she could take a sabbatical after the re-accreditation visit was completed.
Lynn had done an excellent job with the move to the new facility, promoting one staffer to a supervisory position and hiring a development director. She had put in place a leadership team which could function during the duration of her sabbatical. It was empowering to her leadership team to run the center in her absence and know that as board chair I was there to support them.
So it was a good collaborative effort. But as we were moving through her year-end evaluation, really the thing that I was most proud of is that we said, “Lynn, what can we do for you?” And she said, “It’s not money, it’s time away,” and we were able to get her through the site visit and they confiscated her email password and sent her off.
It’s important to recognize burnout with nonprofit leaders. Her time away was well deserved and much better than any amount of money.
[Note: To be clear, Lynn Ayers' staff changed her email password so she would not be tempted to check email while on sabbatical.]
Thinking about your colleagues in the sector: Do you see any patterns that lead to effective or ineffective partnerships? What are they?
Cindy Cammack: I think you have to have mutual respect and trust with one another. And I think if you’re a volunteer with a nonprofit board you have to remember you’re a volunteer with a nonprofit board and your job is not to go run the nonprofit.
I think you have to have mutual respect and trust with one another. – Cindy Cammack
Jack Shultz: I keep saying communication, but direct communication between your board chair and your executive director is key, not the kind of arrangement where a board chair goes around the executive director to other board members. If I ever thought there was an issue with Lynn I’d go to her and I would hope that the same were true from her perspective.
But I have served on boards where it doesn’t work that way and it won’t work if you don’t have the trust that you mentioned, and that direct communication that says, “If I’ve got a problem or a concern with this, I’d better be talking to my partner about it.”
Lynn Ayers: I’ve served and mentored other nonprofit executives. There is one that I’m working with now, for example, where their board is just basically making every decision for them, down to whether they can purchase a can of coffee or not, down to who’s going to sit on the multidisciplinary team.
I’m so frustrated because I don’t see this person developing as a leader. She will never develop as a leader as long as the board doesn’t empower her to become a leader. And so it becomes a dead-end street for this organization.
Jack Shultz: Personalities play into this. I mean there are people who view themselves as extremely important if they’re chairman of the board of whatever the organization is. And that’s well and good if it’s because they have such a commitment to it, but if it’s their ego that drives that then you can have a hard time getting along with your ED because they’re there for the wrong purpose.
How does an effective partnership enhance your ability to achieve your mission?
Lynn Ayers: We’re able to think big picture and continually move the organization forward and be looking for the next thing to come down the road. We’re focused on making this the best possible organization it can be. And that’s where our focus and energy is, as opposed to, “So and so said you didn’t give them sick leave on August 14th, is that true?” If you stay focused on the mission, I think then you can get so much more done.
How does an effective partnership enhance your job satisfaction?
Lynn Ayers: I don’t go home at night in tears and I don’t go home and ruminate over, “Did I make the right decision? Did I make the wrong decision? Am I going to be second guessed? Am I going to hear about this in 15 emails tomorrow?”
How does it affect job satisfaction? It totally impacts it. If you feel like your board chair believes in what you’re doing and respects your decision making, then you feel more empowered to make those decisions and to move the organization forward. If you feel like you’re going to be second-guessed on every decision you make, you just quit making decisions, you just fill a chair. It’s easier just to show up and that’s not healthy for an organization.
If you feel like your board chair believes in what you’re doing and respects your decision making, then you feel more empowered to make those decisions and to move the organization forward. If you feel like you’re going to be second-guessed on every decision you make, you just quit making decisions, you just fill a chair. – Lynn Ayers
Jack Shultz: To me it’s the satisfaction of feeling like we’re providing Lynn the support, we’re raising the money that needs to be raised and we’re unfortunately building awareness. Unfortunate in the sense that child abuse continues to grow. And by building awareness we’re increasing the volume of the work that comes in, which is sometimes almost overwhelming when you think about how this is a steady increase.
If you have a non-functioning executive director and you are not able to make that director function, you want to devote less time to it. It’s not fun, it becomes an obligation and that is when it defeats the mission. It’s not because I want to be doing this, it’s because I have to get through the rest of this term. And that’s a horrible situation. When you serve as a volunteer board chairman you have strong feelings and you are easily motivated, but when the sausage doesn’t come out the other end of the grinder it gets frustrating and you say, “How much longer do I have? Another three months of this?”
What happens when an effective partnership is absent?
Cindy Cammack: To me it’s the communication. If that communication doesn’t work then I think you’ve lost your board because if we can’t get on the same page, we can’t lead an effective meeting, I would think your board members would walk away.
Lynn Ayers: There’s no trust and so you quit talking. I’m not going to ask for her or his opinion because if I open the door they’ll think it gives them permission to micromanage on everything, so then I just quit sharing anything, which is not good for the agency.
What’s your advice to other social sector leaders wanting to build an effective partnership?
Lynn Ayers: Always cultivating the vice chair in terms of how you develop your partnerships. I think that’s important, as a director you’re always looking down the road, who’s the next one coming up and how do I build that relationship with the next person in line and the next person after that? You can start anticipating.
Jack Shultz: And I think your board chair has some obligation there too. I think your board chair has an obligation for whoever was next in line, as that gets closer, to include them and let them see how this has worked. Which is not to say they may not have ideas and suggestions on how it could be better.
But I think if they see that both the executive director and the previous chair bought into this partnership, I think they’re more likely to do the same. Sometimes that’s easy to do and sometimes it’s not.