Three Must-Know Strategies for Building a Strong Board/Executive Relationship
with Dr. Mary Hiland

Inspired Nonprofit Leadership

Dr. Hiland’s Podcast

How does having an effective nonprofit board matter to your nonprofit?

Dr. Hiland will share the 5 ways we know nonprofit boards impact the nonprofits they serve.

What 3 strategies are critical to building a strong board/executive relationship?

  1. Build trust – the 3 levels of trust in working relationships and examples of how to build the board/executive relationship to the highest level
  2. Executive assets – keep your board members’ informed of the assets you bring – what those are.
  3. Managing expectations – get clarity about the board members’ roles vs the executive’s role and where they overlap (shared leadership).
Mary Hiland

Dr. Mary Hiland

Mary Hiland is a nonprofit board and leadership development consultant dedicated to assisting nonprofit executives and board members to unleash their potential for organizational and community impact.

Mary has over forty years’ experience in the nonprofit sector. Her 26 years of executive experience began with a small nonprofit ($100,000 budget and 5 staff) which she grew into one with 530 staff and a budget of $25 million.

Mary is the Founder and President of Hiland Consulting. She has been consulting and mentoring nonprofit leaders for the past 18 years to strengthen the board/executive partnership and develop boards as strategic assets.

Mary is a speaker, published author, and researcher. She is a contributing author to four books on nonprofit leadership and governance including You and Your Nonprofit Board (2013) and Leading and Managing in the Social Sector: Introduction and Overview (2017). She hosts the podcast: Inspired Nonprofit Leadership.

Learn more about Mary by visiting her website:

Mary’s free gift: Trust Building Action Plan:



Inspired Nonprofit Leadership Facebook group:


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Read the Interview

Hugh Ballou: Hello, there. This is Hugh Ballou. I am the founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. SynerVision is the synergy of a common vision. It resembles what I did for 40 years as a musical conductor. We build high performing ensembles. At SynerVision, we work with nonprofit leaders and clergy, building high-performing teams, implementing their plan, and creating harmony. Speaking of that, boards of directors. That is an interesting group within nonprofits. There is a lot to be said about boards.

Our guest today is Dr. Mary Hiland. Mary is going to talk about the relationship between the executive and the board. Mary, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Tell people a little bit about yourself and what your passion is for what you do.

Mary Hiland: Thanks so much for having me, Hugh. It’s exciting to be here and have this conversation. I have been in the nonprofit sector for over 40 years. I was an executive for 26 years. I built a very small nonprofit up to a nonprofit with 530 people. After 26 years, I left and have been consulting with boards and executives for 18 years. I served on a board myself for 17 years. I have been on both sides of the table. In my consulting, I have studied and researched and focused on understanding boards and executives and how they can work together effectively.

Hugh: What excites you most about this topic?

Mary: What excites me is the potential that I see in boards of directors. There is a lot of what I call board-bashing when people are blaming boards and saying, “If I didn’t have such a terrible board, I could do better.” There are problems with boards, but I have seen boards have amazing impacts. I have seen executives and been an executive, so I have seen it all. What excites me is the possibilities of unleashing the potential for boards, executives, and the power of their partnership. That’s what I love working on.

Hugh: What we talk about with our organizations that we work with is the synergy of the leader and the organization. Strong cultures are a reflection of strong leaders. Effective cultures are the mirror image of an effective leader. Optimistic, energized, whatever word you want to use, the culture is the reflection of the leader. You are focusing in on the executive director. It could be a pastor, a president, a number of different titles, but it’s the influencer and their relationship with the board of directors. Speak a little bit about- We want to blame other people. It’s natural to blame other people for our faults. How many times are leaders complaining about the situation that they participated in creating?

Mary: That’s a really good point. I had a personal experience when I was an executive where there was a consultant who I told, “I’m having this problem.” She asked, “What are you doing to contribute to this?”

When I see executives, often it’s not intentional, but they aren’t aware of the value their board can bring. It’s just really hard. You have a whole group as your supervisor. Some boards think the chair of the board is the supervisor of the executive; that’s a big mistake. It actually conflicts with federal law. No one person on a board is any authority. There is an exception, but we won’t get into that. I really think the most effective executives are those who want to develop a strong board and aren’t threatened by having a strong board. That partnership is the leadership team of the nonprofit. Together, they create a result. It isn’t something I think the executive can do alone. You have to partner with the board to get the best outcomes that you want for your nonprofit.

Hugh: Technically, the executive runs the organization and reports to the board, and the board has oversight of all the strategy, governance, financial approvals, and contracts. You don’t want the board messing in the day-to-day because that’s not their strong suit.

Mary: Absolutely. If I had one thing to say to board members about their role versus the executive’s role, I would say that they have nothing to do with the day-to-day management and operations of the organization. If you’re volunteering, somehow in those roles, maybe you’re a brand-new nonprofit or a nonprofit that doesn’t have any staff, you have to take your board hat off and go to being a staff/volunteer resource for your nonprofit. If there is an executive director, that person is responsible for your supervision. It’s two different roles. It’s not one role as a board member who happens to be doing day-to-day work.

Hugh: Oftentimes, I see there are adversarial relationships when it’s really not necessary. Sometimes, the executive is intimidated by the board. Sometimes, the board doesn’t know how much work it takes to accomplish what it takes running the organization. They continue to heap on more duties. We intimidate ourselves with our own scripts. It starts with the word “nonprofit,” which is a bad word that puts us in a negative mindset. We add to that. We dance around stuff and finally say, “I will be blunt.” Maybe we want to be direct. The executive director shows up and says, “I’m just aggressive.” Maybe you’re just assertive. I got to go to them and confront them. Confront means with your front technically. We have skewed the relationship because of some of our own scripts as leaders. How do you see that playing out in this relationship, which ought to be the synergy of this friendly, engaging, collaborative relationship?

Mary: A lot of things boil down to trust. If you trust your board, you have confidence that they are there to support your best interest. Of course, the best interests of your nonprofit as well. I think that leaders—you’re talking about mindset. If you come into it with a scarcity mindset, I think that any leader needs to be self-aware, self-reflecting. How confident are you? You’re really aren’t able to be assertive in a constructive way if you’re not confident in yourself. Leaders who frankly are needy, scared- It isn’t that you can’t have situations where those are realistic emotions, but we need to have confidence in ourselves as leaders and trust ourselves and approach board members who are volunteers from the mindset they are there because they care about your mission. This is your common ground. Everything comes back to that.

I think what you’re saying about synergy is really the ideal state you want. You want to be in a synergistic relationship with your board where you’re leading together. The board’s job is broader than oversight. Oversight is included, but it’s not exciting. It doesn’t connect them to the mission. There is more they can do than that. The strong executive wants a strong board. I think that’s possible. I see that a lot.

Hugh: That’s to everybody’s mutual advantage. It’s really understanding the role, the responsibility, and your mission, being focused on what we do. I have seen boards go from sitting back and nodding to then leaning in to the conversation and saying, “I can do this.” You want an active, engaged board. Rolling up their sleeves is a good thing.

Mary has a podcast called Inspired Nonprofit Leadership. You can find it on Apple and other places.

Mary: You can find it most places. Spotify is a good alternative to Apple if needed.

Hugh: And you are a soon to be published author. You’re published, but this is your first book. I see visually displayed thinking behind you. I can relate to that. I use meeting planning that way. It helps to stay centered and focused and not lose track of some of the things that are important. Tell us about this book that’s coming out.

Mary: You can see the circles over there. I did some research in the past looking retrospectively at over 100 cases of people who brought board issues to me. I interviewed executives and board members and accumulate new cases as we go along. I really was trying to define as a consultant what the promise is that I am trying to solve. As you know, boards are complex and go all over the gamut. I was having trouble with my own business development hat on. Then it occurred to me as I took a deeper dive into these case studies and looked at what the problem is.

I found that all of the problems with boards fit into three dimensions of the board: capacity; connection, which is about the relationships; and culture. Within each of those, there is a people side of that and a process side of that. That is what I’m talking about in the book. How do you diagnose or assess the issues you’re trying to change with your board in an appropriate way? I have found that executives come to me and frame the issue as capacity. If they just know their roles and responsibilities, if we just had more board members, if we just had the right board members. These are all capacity issues. But the problems might actually be deeper. They might be about the quality of relationships, the quality of people, the culture of the board. Things like mindset that we have discussed. I find that people aren’t going deep enough. Some problems are at the capacity level, but some, when you try those surface solutions like send our board to training. Training doesn’t change behavior. Knowledge can be the foundation of beginning to be aware that you need to change. I can go on and on about this.

I’m hopeful that there can be great strategies in there from my deep experience and study and that of others of course about what you do about it when you have these problems.

Hugh: Part of my study was leadership. Part of it is strategic planning. Part of it is coaching. But part of it is facilitation. One of the tools we use is situation analysis. Problem-solving is a whole toolset in itself. I appreciate you bringing that up. Sometimes, we’re not sure what the problem is we’re solving. I’ve had boards of ten where I use half sheets of paper that I put on sticky boards. I say, “Write down the question we need to ask. What is the problem? What is the situation?” Write it out. Very often, I’ll get 11 answers.

Mary: That’s right. People are not aligned on what is the real issue here.

Hugh: And then we put them up and look at them. Is it really something that precedes these? Is it something that these are a symptom of? Many times, we are looking at symptoms. It’s a leadership skill for the executive: to properly engage the board. If they can be a participant in identifying some of the issues that we’re solving, then we have already started down a relationship trust path. We have started a different collective thinking, cooperative, synergy building, and consensus building pathway. In problem solving, what are some of the things that are effective? How does the leader show up and facilitate the conversation?

Mary: I think there is two things I’d like to say about that. One is you want to be asking why is that the problem? The five whys. Why do we care about this? Do get down to the problem. I am hoping that what I have to offer will help people do that in these three categories. Even if the board is not a strong team, that could be it.

The other side I’d like to bring in is the perspective of appreciative inquiry. You are spending time focusing on when it was working. Or when it worked well for you before in another organization, what was present? What was going on when it was working? If you look at appreciative inquiry, they found it’s much more effective in an organization when you want something to change or get better to focus on what your own experience and the experience of others has worked in the past versus focusing too much on the problem. While I’m helping identify problems, I am saying once you know what you want to work on, back up and ask if you have dealt with anything like this before.

For example, I worked with an executive director. There were communication problems. Instead of saying, “What are the problems? How are we going to fix it?” we have identified these types of communication problems. When you were in a situation like this, what did it look like? We created some guidelines out of that for positive, healthy communication.

The guy who invented this approach was asked to come into an organization and solve their sexual harassment incident problem. He said, “I want you to tell me what do you want to create? Don’t tell me what the problem is. Tell me what you want to create.” They thought about it, and the leaders said, “We want healthy cross-gender relationships.” He said, “Now we can find where healthy cross-gender relationships exist in your organization. Those examples can teach us what to create.” I love appreciative inquiry as an approach to issues.

Hugh: I have a mindset of let’s look at what’s positive. I don’t like to use SWATs for that reason. You have really switched the paradigm around. Instead of focusing in the problem, one thing I have used that works well, let’s envision what we want. Let’s envision the ideal situation. What do we need to get there? What updates do we need to make? What do we need to add that we’re not doing? There are different ways of approaching it. We add energy to what we think about.

Mary: When we think about the board/executive relationship, that’s the question. When you have a new board chair, you want to sit down with them and say, “What does a real positive relationship look like to you? How do you envision us working together over the coming year?” Those are ways that you build that partnership with your board: understanding you have maybe 12-15 people. They all have different perspectives. Getting to know them and understanding their views of success can be helpful to you.

Hugh: You should never have lunch alone. You should always be meeting with your supporters or board members. There is a term you used that people may not be as familiar with that you might add some shape around. Capacity building is a buzz word. You spoke of capacity. But speak more of capacity, what that means, and why it’s important.

Mary: Capacity is important to nonprofits because if you don’t have any, you can’t get anything done. We form organizations because we can’t accomplish something alone. The implication of that at its very basic level is we need more capacity. We need more people. Capacity is also about your processes and systems that you have in place. If you have to reinvent things all the time, if you’re not implementing things in a way that’s working for you, you’re burning up capacity. You’re reinventing the wheel. We often think of capacity in nonprofits as the people side of things. Having the right people on the bus, to quote Jim Collins. That’s true for your board, but it’s true for your whole organization.

Going deeper on the personal side, you have personal capacity. It gets back to what you opened up with in terms of executives sacrificing themselves. This doesn’t serve anyone. At Harvard, they did a study in some banks, finding out that people in the bank who engaged in self-renewing practices, and they taught them what they were, that deal with your mental status, emotional status, spiritual status, things you can do to energize yourself because you can build your energy. You can’t get more time, but you can get more energy. As they renewed and went home at 5pm and didn’t work late, meditated, exercised, all these things that executives tell themselves, “I don’t have time for that,” those folks were more productive on the jobs than the ones who didn’t do their practices. It’s a real myth that taking care of yourself is taking time away. Taking care of yourself builds your capacity by building your energy to bring to the work you need to do. So important.

Hugh: That is so great. Let’s dig into the roles a little bit. I have been a staff person who has worked with boards and committees. I have also been president of the board and worked with an executive. As Murray Bowen put in his leadership writing, there is a triangle of relationships. The person who runs the meeting is the board chair or president, the volunteer who is in charge of facilitating the meetings. The part you just talked about was always critical for me as a staff person to meet in between meetings with that person and to scope out what is going on in between meetings and how the meeting will run and how we will play together in that meeting. That is an essential relationship. Speak about those distinctive roles and how they function together.

We are going to have conflict. This is a sign of energy. How do we manage the things that don’t go right when we have a trip in our step?

Mary: Those are two big questions. Let’s go back to the roles first. I am going to back up a little bit and elaborate a little more on the overall role of the board. There is a good book out there written by a Harvard guy called Governance as Leadership. It’s been around for a while. It’s really good. I recommend it. But I frankly, after all my studies, my doctoral work was on this, was I think governance is leadership. This is how.

When you think about the role of the board, it isn’t just oversight. That’s one. My doctoral studies in leadership, I have boiled it down to four functions that leaders have. One is to envision the future. Under this is all your planning, looking at your market. You do have a market as a nonprofit. Considering strategic partnerships, things like that. That’s a function as the board. You do that with your executive because they are the thought leader in your field. They know your nonprofit better than anyone sitting on the board. They know the strategies you’re using to have impact for your mission. You have to do this together.

The second thing, and this creates tension. I think one key thing to recognize conflict is first recognize where there are ambiguities and tension in the situations you’re in and in the roles you’re in. You have to acknowledge it and work it out together. You have to know the reality of your nonprofit and agree on how you will respond to it. Under that comes the board’s responsibility to ensure there is resources to advance the mission. This is where oversight fits. This is where supporting and evaluating your executive sits. You have to know the reality and respond. You have a tension here between there is the future we want to create, that vision we talked about, and here is where we are. We have to figure out how to get from here to there.

The third leadership function is to inspire and engage others to act. You’re not leading if you don’t have any followers. This is critical for board members. They can leverage themselves to build the social capital of your nonprofit. This is where you as an executive, what you can do alone is multiplied when you have a board working with you. Being ambassadors, being advocates. That is not oversight. That is fun frankly. Marketing and things like that can be there.

The fourth bucket is one we don’t think about very often. We did talk about it earlier for executives. That is self-reflection and self-management. In this area of leadership belongs all of the board’s self-management. I don’t think boards pay much attention to this or do it very well. What is your system for recruiting that is effective? How are you orienting your board members? How are you structuring yourself? How are you using your strategic plan to decide the important work of the board?

I know I got off on that instead of relationship, but if your board understands this, if the board understands these key roles, and it’s not day to day, you work it out together in the areas where you have shared leadership because there is shared leadership. There is shared leadership on envisioning the future, relationship building, in being out in the community and being a spokesperson. That can be where tension arises if you’re not being clear with each other about your roles, about your responsibilities, and your authority, and the boundaries that you need to create so you’re not stepping on each other’s toes.

Hugh: That’s good stuff. Mary and I met 23 hours ago. My guest for today ended up in the hospital with COVID. He said, “I can’t do it.” I said, “Ooh, really?” I said, “Mary, what are you doing tomorrow?” Thank you for being here. Mary is an expert on leadership. You used a word a whole lot that I find people don’t understand very much. That is the word “leadership.” In your conversation, you have expanded the definition to what it really is and how it applies. I am going to ask you about these three areas we have highlighted on the page. What three strategies are critical to building strong board/executive relationships?

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Dr. Mary Hiland not only has the credentials of the education, but she has some years in the trenches wearing multiple hats. Let’s talk about these three strategies: build trust, executive assets, and managing expectations. Would you unpack those for us?

Mary: Sure. The build trust one, I want to do a deeper dive if we can. The other two—executive assets and managing expectations—in some ways build trust, but I call them out because they’re so critical to the relationship.

What I found in studying the board chair/executive relationship, which was one of my research projects, I found there were three types of trust. First, what is trust? Those of you out there listening, think about one or two words of what trust is. Now, trust is not honesty. It is not doing what you say you’re going to do. It’s not communicating effectively. It’s a feeling. If you’re walking down a dark street and you hear footsteps behind you, you have to tap into your gut and say, “Do I trust that I’m okay?” Trust is fundamentally confidence. The feeling of confidence that someone at best has your best interest at heart or is not going to hurt you. That’s trust.

There is three levels of trust. One is calculus-based trust. I wish I had better names for these. That is the trust that gets us out of bed every day. You get in your car and drive down the street. You don’t know the person in the cars on the other side of the road. You trust they won’t run over you or crash into you. That is the basic trust. It’s the lowest level of trust. Trust is cumulative. In my research, there was a board chair/executive relationship that only had that level of trust. It was weak.

The next level is what we think of the most. That’s knowledge-based trust. That’s when you get to know each other better. You want to be getting to know each other. Get to know your board members. You want them to get to know you. There are three kinds of knowledge-based trust. There is contractual, where you’re doing agreements. There is communication, and there is competence. We’ll talk more about that. Keep in mind that it’s getting to know you. You can build trust. It’s possible that you’re not building trust if you’re not doing effective behaviors with each other in that category.

The final one is the surprise. That’s called identification-based trust. We often think that being professional is not being personal. We are talking about being appropriately personal. The pairs in my research of the board chairs and executives who have the strongest, most impactful relationships in all kinds of ways for their nonprofits have strong identification-based trust. This is not where you just know the person, but you identify with them. In order to identify with them, you need to know them on a personal level. There were not as many executives and boards where they had this more personal knowledge of each other.

It behooves you to spend time with your board members and your board chair to get to know some things about them personally so you can find that personal common ground. The benefits of identifying with each other where you could speak on behalf of each other. You could trust your board chair to be out in your community speaking on behalf of your nonprofit. You didn’t have to be there. You didn’t have to be worried about whether they will say the right things. That’s trust. Trust is cumulative. You have to do different trust-building behaviors.

Executive assets is something I want to tell you executive directors out there. One of the types of trust is competence. You would not hire an electrician to work on your plumbing. They’re not competent to work on your plumbing. They are competent to work on electricity. This relates to competence-based trust. You are going to have a stronger relationship with your board if every board member knows what assets you’re bringing to the job. Your search committee on the board when you’re hired knows what those are. After you’re hired, when you get new board members on, do you share your resume with them? Do you talk to them about your education, your experience, your network, your ability to tap into colleagues to solve problems, your ability to influence in the community as a leader because you’re connected to people? These are all assets that you have as an executive director. The more each board member knows about you and your assets that you bring, your special skills and knowledge, your experience and connections, they will have stronger trust in you so you will be viewed as competent.

Of course, for board members out there, this can be important for you, too, to share your competence as a board member. Some of you may be new and not have very much. Some of you may be experienced board members.

The third thing is managing expectations. We talked about this already. This is about getting very clear about these roles and understanding. Hugh, you brought up the idea of working with a chair of a committee. They are a facilitator, not a commanding control person. They don’t own what everyone is supposed to do on that committee. Managing expectations can be about sharing what capacity you do have. If your board is asking you to do more than you really feel you can manage, don’t sacrifice yourself and say, “I’ll do it anyway.” I went to my board and said, “If I’m going to take that on, we have to negotiate what I am going to let go of.” You can set limits by managing expectations. That’s why this particular strategy is so critical because this is the one you need to protect yourself, to protect your capacity, grow your energy. It’s okay to do things, but you and the board need to agree on the priorities. Those are the three in a nutshell.

Hugh: Great stuff. Mary, is it okay if people ask questions?

Mary: I’d love that.

Hugh: This is our second conversation. It is phenomenal that we are aligned on every single point that you’re making. Mr. Rash, do you have a question or comment?

Sheikh Rashid: Deep appreciation for what Mary has talked about. I am also with you, Hugh, that I am in 100% agreement with it. I found a decision I made 40 years ago when I created the first board. Intuitively, it was to try to have people who I trusted and who trusted me and who in their volunteering were also giving all of their skills and knowledge to the work as opposed to trying to create a board to get money. We didn’t find enough money after all these years, but I do have three and a half nonprofits that have been successful.

I’d like to hear comments on inside and outside boards. How do you balance those two issues? Personally, as president and founder of an organization, and a person who does not micromanage, I give a lot of authority, and our organization is 85-95% women who run it. I have found that the male versus female culture. Yet the time I find I am making that distinction only as a historical reality. Our board is made up of 50/50 right now. But the board has not been a board that is active in bringing in income. I wonder if you could talk about inside versus outside boards.

Mary: I’m assuming you mean by outside board, the people who go out and ask for money. I would say I need to be outside building relationships whether that’s for money or just engagement of people with your mission. This is the biggest problem that people have with boards: transitioning, when they need to, not every financial model requires a nonprofit to fundraise. As they need to, grow up to transition a board to more of a fundraising role. I do have to say at risk of being unpopular I don’t think of fundraising boards. Boards have to govern. They can’t give up the strategic issues and oversight. But they can also help bring in resources.

There are many strategies to build. I talked to somebody yesterday who didn’t know you can have people on board committees who are not board members. She can build a fundraising committee with a couple of key board leaders to add capacity without adding board members who are not yet ready or who will never really transition to raising money feel like they have to go away or lose them.

I think the key first step to creating a board that is starting to fundraise or transitioning to that is to get some leadership on the board. I’m talking about true facilitated leadership where they can appreciate where everyone is in fundraising and tap into people’s potential, empower them, coach them, honor them around the fears people have about asking for money. The fact is 90% of the way boards add value in raising money is by building relationships. It has nothing to do with asking for the money. It has everything to do with networking and building relationships and introducing people to your mission.

Hugh: Good set-up. We have Bob Hopkins on the line who has had a career, CFRE professional. Bob is in Dallas, Texas. Do you have something to share or a question for our guest?

Bob Hopkins: I do, thank you. Tell me the name of your book.

Mary: I haven’t finished the title yet. It’s in the works. But something like Love your Board: Discover the Three Keys to Understanding What’s Really Going On and Develop Your Board for Impact.

Bob: Well, when I heard you were coming on, I jumped at the opportunity because this is one of my favorite topics. I have been the executive director of nonprofit organizations for most of my life. Every time I get it figured out, I realize I don’t know anything about people. I think I get people all figured out, and I pigeonhole people, and then they fail me or something happens. I do love what you have to say. I can’t wait to have you finish your book so that I can get a copy of it.

I have been involved with this topic for 40 years. My first book that I read was The Board Member’s Book. This wasn’t very big, but it was my guide in 1980 when I started my first job. Arthur Frantzreb wrote the book Not on this Board You Don’t.

Hugh: Love that title.

Bob: He got a lot of attention through that. I started out with a nonprofit organization in my book about this experience. It was called the disease of neurofibromatosis. I didn’t have many board members. I had seven. When I took over, three of them said, “You know what? We’ve had enough of this organization. We’re going to leave.” That left me with four. They asked me how long it would take me to get the organization together, and I said two years. Mary, I was there eight years. That’s when I decided I had this thing together. It would be okay if I left because it might survive. I’m kind of of the mind that boards should not hire an executive director who won’t commit to you for at least three years. If this board business is all about relationship building, your relationship with the executive director, the person who is in charge, needs to have a relationship with these people. Just because you’ve been in a couple meetings with them, you have no idea what the capability of individual people are or what their passions are or how you can develop that passion. What do you think about longevity as far as boards of directors are concerned?

Mary: For individual board members, you mean?

Bob: Let’s start with the executive director. What do you think about what I said about not hiring someone who isn’t willing to commit to three years?

Mary: I agree. That’s a very interesting issue. I need to ask the executives that I work with and coach whether they have ever made that commitment and what their understanding was with their board. When I was hired as CEO, I was asked to make a five-year commitment. My second stint, we had done a merger where in six months we brought together four nonprofits. We knew we had a huge amount of work to do. I think three years frankly would be a minimum. I would expect a board to be very explicit about that. I appreciate you bringing it up because I would guess many boards aren’t when they’re hiring.

Executives, you need to think about that. You need to think about what you’re going to communicate to the board you may be interviewing with about what kind of commitment you’re willing to make. We all know that we can’t control everyone. It’s not like these are legally binding agreements. I think this is all part of managing expectations. If you’re coming in and being hired and thinking this guy’s going to be here for ten years, but you’re thinking to turn it around and escape in three years, that’s not managing expectations together. It brings up another thing, which is about the board chair. I have spent a lot of time looking at that role. I personally think, there is no research out there to support this, that board chairs should be in their role at least two years. When you think about the executive starting all over again year after year after year, it doesn’t work.

There was a national study that I was a part of—there were five of us researchers—the first ever study on board chairs where board chairs were asked to respond. The other studies were board members or executives talking about board chairs. We had 635 board chairs respond to that study. When we asked, “Did they prepare?” We all know this, but this was research confirmed. 51% said they did nothing to prepare. I know I got off on your topic there, but this is a critical leadership role. We need to do more leadership development on our boards, and we also need to have that board chair a little longer. That partnership then with the executive who is also committed to being there for a while. Then you can have this powerful relationship synergy to lead your organization and make some real progress.

Bob: I agree with that second issue you talked about. People being a board chair for two years. I was on two boards in the ‘90s. After I finished one year, that wasn’t enough time. I asked my board to elect me for another year because we weren’t finished what we’re doing now. Since then, both of those boards have done two-year stints for each of their board chairmen. Thank you for communicating that topic because it’s not a one-year deal.

Hugh: Bob and Sheikh Rashid are major influencers and have been on many boards in many places. There is a model that I think works really well. I just rotated off of one. You have a cycle where the president-elect and vice president have a two-year ramp-up. They are elected to be the president for two years. Then they are the past president. You have some fresh energy because you have a little bit of time to figure it out. One year is not enough time to figure out the board. It certainly is not enough time to figure out how to be the chair or president of the board. It takes you a little while to get into your stride. You can be useful to the next person as the past chair because you hold a lot of information that may not be written down everywhere.

Mary: That’s right. I find that having the chair elect, I have been on some boards where the chair elect starts four years before they become chair. That, I don’t agree with. I don’t think you have to be other positions. No. I absolutely agree that a chair-elect role, where you’re the chair-elect for a year and are being mentored in that role, some of that came out in our study. Mentoring was the only thing board chairs wished they had before they stepped into that role from their peers or someone who had been in that role before. That model is really something all nonprofits should be doing for sure.

Hugh: Absolutely. I find that with new board members, they are excited. Then they don’t know what they were doing. Even if you do an orientation, there is a confidence piece. You look around and there is no relationship piece. I love the way you present leadership. Underneath that is relationship. That’s a foundation. That’s also the foundation for communications and raising money. There is a continuity of people connecting with people. We’re there because we share a common passion for what Bob is so skilled at: philanthropy, the love of humankind. We are showing up as philanthropists with our time, our talent, and our money. Is there a question we didn’t ask you, Mary?

Mary: I guess I want to say that you matter so much. Those of you out there working in the sector. I think that it comes back to what I said about capacity. We need to shift the culture in our sector from this scarcity mindset so that we all value investing in each other, investing in our boards. I want to have a call to action to all you executives out there. Invest in your relationships with your board. You should be spending 20% of your time on your board, developing your board, building relationships with your board. If you don’t feel you have that time, you have to do something else. I would invest in building these relationships, in building our capacity to have these relationships. We have to be realistic about what we can and cannot do.

When I was negotiating contracts as an executive, the county would say, we have to do more with less. Excuse me. I will not swear on this broadcast, but I feel strongly about that concept. You cannot do more with less unless you are inefficient and ineffective to begin with. Then maybe you can. You have to work on that.

But this is about getting realistic as a sector about what we can do effectively. Our focus should be on quality, not our quantity of hours and work. It should be on the quality with what we’re able to produce with and for each other. I guess that wasn’t so much of a question so much as a passion for saying how much I love all of you out there: executives, boards. I really care about making a difference in the world. What could be better than that?

Hugh: Love it. Mary, you do have a gift. is her website. If you go to, she has a free handout for you. Mary, if people were to do one thing differently after this, what would you say they do right now?

Mary: I’d say that you be intentional about building your relationship with your board members if you’re an executive. Board members, be intentional about building your relationship with your executive. The quality of those relationships is what is going to allow your leadership to be most effective. The basics of those three strategies get trust building done, get information. It isn’t just what you might think, one or two things as to what you can purposefully do to be intentional about building trust.

Grab that action plan because it has a little chart in there where you can say, “Okay, here is the person. This is the behavior.” There are 19 behaviors in there. “These are the behaviors I am going to do with that person.” You have an intentional strategy for how you are building trust with everyone. The more diverse strategies you use, the stronger the trust will be. Do something intentional about building relationship with your board or executives.

Hugh: Wise words among many wise words. This was so valuable today.


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