This first interview with Joel Solomon and Dana Bass Solomon in our Mission Impact Webinar Series highlighted these key insights around cultivating an effective Chair-CEO relationship. Elements of the Q&A are included here in this blog post. To watch the video click here or to read the full transcript log in to your HCN membership.
- Establish key commitments and principles
- Clarify lines of authority and responsibilities
- Create clear boundaries
- Invest time in building trust
- Enjoy fun time together, especially important in a power dynamic relationship
- Talk about upcoming issues, decisions and questions prior to a Board meeting
- Commit to lifelong learning
- Take responsibility for your own part in any challenges
- Establish your network of trusted allies
- Sing a song at the beginning of board meetings – come to the place of heart connection
- Listen to each other respectfully and with real curiosity and interest
- Pay attention to prevention – see where is something starting to fall apart and check in
Christine: I’m curious if you both feel that the relationship between the chair and the CEO is really at the heart of a thriving nonprofit?
Dana: I would say absolutely in any organization, the chair and the CEO roles are so important and really at the heart of the organization. The chair supports the CEO in all the initiatives the CEO thinks up and dreams on and wants to do. The CEO supports the chair and hears about what the board has as far as interests and direction and pathways to get there. Those two roles, no matter the personal relationship, are very well connected and linked up and very important.
Joel: There are a lot of different dimensions to organizations like this and you could look at the land, the higher purpose. However, the governance aspect and the pragmatic world ultimately have to be paid attention to, and done well. Having a well managed board, that is working on the right principles and focused on the right topics, understands what its role is and isn’t. For the leader of the staff and everything that happens on a day to day basis, it’s also important that they are empowered properly and have clear accountability systems.
Christine: I’m wondering what were you saying yes to when you first stepped into the role of chair 25 years ago?
Joel: The role of the board and the board chair, is to look at large level policy, to hire and fire the leader of the day to day operation of the organization. The Board should delegate as much as possible, everything that has to do with the ongoing operation. It’s up to a board to determine when something is a policy issue and when is it best to be delegated. It’s not a perfect crisp line, but it gets clear fairly soon. A good board should be very clear about how they engage with staff.
Christine: Were you guiding all of these principles and ways of being with a lot of experience on a board already?
Joel: Hollyhock was a learning journey and still is for me for 38 years. I didn’t have board experience when I joined the Hollyhock board. I seem to have a natural proclivity towards how systems work and how to keep them healthy. And I learned on the job.
Christine: What were the other qualities that you recognized in Dana that you thought these are important for the CEO role?
Joel: There were a number of features about Dana that were quite clear to me. First was her professional hospitality background. She understood the idea of bringing guests and how you house, feed, care for them, and create a great experience. Some people have natural hosting skills, but there’s an art and science about how you manage such things and how you structure an organization in order to provide excellent hospitality.
Number two, Dana was very charming and curious and really interested in learning about what all this was and how it could be taken further. She had a set of qualities that seemed well suited for the complexities of an intentional growth center. When you are in that experiment and are pushing to open up the deeper realities about the human being, someone who could both love and be warm and set boundaries in an effective way, and had actual practical skills, was a combination we dearly needed.
Dana: On my first trip to Hollyhock, I attended a program called “Spirit and Business”. It was the notion of how do we bring our whole selves, our inner and outer skills, into our businesses. How do we make our businesses useful out in the world, beyond making a financial profit. The people were so inspiring and doing such great work in the world. I was completely enraptured and passionate about what was going on in this also extraordinarily beautiful natural setting place in the world.
I was a professional, practical, and a skillful management person. However, I never asked the question, “How are we doing financially really?” I’m sure some of you have gotten into your centers and gotten swept up in the extraordinary mission and vision and values of the organization and don’t ask that question. So a tip would be, it’s always good to ask that question before you come in!
Another important detail is that we had a tremendous and diverse constituency. We listened to and took input from all of the parts of those constituencies. We didn’t always make the decisions that aligned with people’s opinions. A key detail I think about the success of goals is that we could move through a lot of suggestions quickly. We could resource the people that we felt had the most expertise in the particular topic. We could make decisions effectively and well, but not always the decisions that everybody wanted to make, but decisions that we felt we could stand by and follow through on, that were good for the organization.
Christine: It’s interesting that you touched on the decision making because I think that’s key for so many of our centers. Could you expand on that?
Joel: Hollyhock founded on consensus based decision making and to this day we have never ended up with a contentious vote. Consultative leadership was really the principal. The goal would be how can we take all these different views and meld so that people felt heard and responded to, and could see the results and be able to give feedback about it. And that’s where the art is needed. Everybody’s got opinions. How do you turn that diversity into forward motion?
We battled different issues. But we would take the time and work and come to enough shared agreement. I would describe it as very consensus like, but with clarity that there was a moment where somebody’s delegated with the responsibility to make the decision, as they were the people who were carrying the primary load of the organization. The board always had the opportunity to disagree with the CEO.
Peter: Any advice that you have on a brand new board chair – CEO relationship would be interesting.
Dana: Openness, curiosity and clarity. I think clarity’s probably the most helpful as you get started because as a new executive director, I experienced some tentativeness around staying within the culture of this organization. Having a spirit of generosity around taking care of and supporting each other. If you disagree over a number or a strategy, really being generous and kind, asking more questions before saying, “Actually I don’t think that’s going to work because I’m experienced and I know, and you don’t.”
Joel: Having a third party support backup if you get in trouble, if it doesn’t work, or you have a difficult dispute, that there’s an agreed upon methodology that is openhanded between the two key players that have some kind of counsel or person or methodology, to work through actual differences that are stuck. Then, with help, come to terms that we can live with and move forward, we still don’t agree, but we’re going to get through a decision and we can always adjust later.
Christine: How much time were you able to devote to the role of Chair? Dana was full time and you obviously you were both pouring your heart and dedication into this.
Joel: I was a fanatical volunteer. Not only because of my time but because of the other things I was involved in. The other parts of my life. We wanted to have a social change agenda. It was board driven, at the policy level. The staffs job was to implement it well.
Dana: I worked very, very full time as probably most of you do. And Joel worked a tremendous amount of time, probably more than most board chairs would. I think we both agree that we were having a tremendous amount of fun and a rich life. I do believe that you have to have keen passion for what you’re doing, and have a generosity of spirit and a willingness to see that you’re making a contribution that could make the world better.
Christine: Could you share about the importance of communication flow and responsiveness and how to balance this when the relationship is longer distance and given that a board is volunteer.
Joel: We made an easy job for the board for the most part. We wanted the board to be used for the highest possible value and not to get bogged down in details. My job was to take care of that. Consulting in advance on issues is crucial. If we knew the board had strong views on something, then we spent more time with them to work it through as a team.
Making the board meetings fun and pleasurable helps a lot. We did some things there besides just the business of the board, because the relational field of the board set the pattern for the relational field of staff, and for the whole Hollyhock community. Creating a kind of harmonic. We attempted to make it as smooth as possible by paying attention to where the rubs might be, keeping people extra informed if they had passionate issues.
Christine: Boards and nonprofits can be set up in many different ways. I’m interested in your thoughts around the idea of a shared leadership model or do you feel it’s vital to have a chair in that clear role?
Joel: I have strong feelings on this that ultimately someone needs to be given the authority for the final decision. I’m exposed to a lot of organizations because of my work and if one is going to be fully consensus organization, you have to go into it knowing that that is actually the unusual. Having authority delegated is more common. There are certain clarities that are vital to have decent function. You can have room to go into more esoteric aspects. There’s some kind of balance of consensual, collaborative types of leadership and looking for harmony, but having an ability to get through the decisions.
Dana: Joel and I just didn’t come in as two powerful leaders that took charge of the organization. We built an organization, we built a board that was very aligned. We built a staff team that was aligned. For many years there was much agreement, much forward motion, much joy in what we were doing together. And of course there were challenges. The reason that I think we got to this model of yes, ultimately Dana has to make the decisions on what’s going on at Hollyhock day to day. And Joel has to, if it’s required, make some final decisions about board direction.
Swami Dhumavati: Was your board a fundraising board? There’s always this thing that it has to be a fundraising board and sometimes they’re not and obviously there’s an evolution in that process as well.
Joel: We certainly preach a fundraising board. Everyone must, everyone has to chip in even if it has to be $10, but we have to be united that way and demonstrate our commitment. But did the board actually go out and raise money? I would say that Dana and I did most of that, but we were supported, and there were key board members that would reliably write a check. So we tried to cultivate a fundraising organization. We did everything we could that way, but we knew that ultimately it would be on us to deliver.
Rosie: I am part of the board of directors for Meditation Mount at Ojai, and I just want to ask how many members on the board is there?
Joel: Typically an odd number is the right thing because of voting. But we’ve been at 12 for some time and we’ve not had contentious votes through this history. We’ve really worked things out before there’s a vote. That has to do with great management, which means you’re not constantly dealing with crisis coming to the board. There’s crisis that can’t be avoided. And then it’s, we’re on the same team. And I think with mature, caring people, you can have a sense pretty quickly about the relative health of it. And if it’s healthier, there’s less to be contentious about. And so that sounds simple, but of course complicated.
Trevania: I’m curious about building the board. We have right now a board of five. I’ve been on other boards that are much larger and of course that gives a broader base for fundraising. So why a smaller group and how to gather them?
Joel: I’d say that that somewhere in that 10 to 13 is a zone that is still functional and can be practical together. Opening up for advisers, volunteer fundraisers and things like that makes it much easier. You want to pick very carefully and have mature enough people who can work as a group. Prevention, staying ahead of the issues and communicating. I would not go much bigger than this board. I would create a fundraising committee or an advisory board or something else that activates more distributed responsibility.
Dana: If your organization is a $250,000 a year budget, I would try and keep it smaller because every board member costs money to the organization, sending out documents, getting things signed, gathering them together, communication. If you have a smaller organization, try to keep it under six, and if larger you can accommodate a few more. And then of course, the practical matter of what skills are they bringing? What connections are they bringing? What are they offering to the organization that’s concrete?
To view the first in the Mission Impact Webinar Series click below:
Cultivating an effective Chair-CEO relationship