How to work with your executive officer

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How to work with your executive officer

The relationship between your board and your executive officer (EO) is critical to the success of your organisation.

When this relationship is based on mutual respect, trust and cooperation, effective operational management can flourish. It is vital that board members and EOs understand and respect their different roles and responsibilities.

When there is distrust between the EO and the board or when the board fails to provide the EO with clear direction, there will be confusion, dissatisfaction and poor outcomes for the board, management, staff and clients.

Here is how to create an effective relationship with your executive officer.

Be clear about the role of the board

The role of the board is to govern and:

  • determine the vision, mission and strategy of the organisation
  • provide oversight of this overall direction
  • decide what level of risk the organisation will bear
  • define what success looks like to the organisation
  • monitor and review board, organisational and EO performance
  • assess the broader external environment and its potential impact on the organisation
  • provide resources and support to enable management to deliver the board’s strategy.

In general, the board is responsible for appointing the EO to fulfil the operational role of delivering the board’s strategy. Assuming the board has appointed a competent EO, who shares the organisation’s vision and mission, the board should enable and empower that EO to ‘manage’.

Understand the role of the EO and other management staff

The role of the EO and management is to deliver the board’s strategy. The EO will develop a business plan and manage the operations of the organisation in line with the strategic plan.

Sometimes directors take on operational roles, but usually only in smaller organisations requiring active hands-on support or community, donor and political engagement. In most cases director involvement in operational activities will be managed by the EO.

On rare occasions directors need to actively engage in operational or management roles in the case of unexpected EO departure or absence.

Make your chair the primary point of contact between board and EO

This is a key responsibility of your chair. The chair acts on behalf of the board and the EO on behalf of the staff. An effective working relationship between the chair and the EO provides a clear line of communication between the board and the staff.

Think of your EO as the gatekeeper for your staff and your board chair as the gatekeeper for your board.

Also see How to be an effective board chair.

Make sure you have the foundations for an effective relationship

Make sure you and your fellow directors have:

  • a clear understanding of the board’s role and responsibilities
  • a clear understanding of the EO’s role and responsibilities
  • a strategic plan clarifying the mission, vision and key objectives for the organisation
  • clear expectations and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the EO (Also refer to How to develop performance indicators)
  • a clear understanding of how the board chair and EO will work together, including regular opportunities to meet and discuss issues affecting the organisation and opportunities to strengthen the organisation
  • a clear, and formally documented, delegation of authority, detailing the levels of authority the board provides to the EO. The delegations will detail what the EO is authorised to do in terms of spending limits, types of expenditure, decisions about senior staff changes, powers to enter into contracts, etc. A clear set of delegations is vital to enabling the EO to manage operational affairs
  • regular communication between your EO and board chair
  • a commitment by the board and EO to resource and undertake regular professional development opportunities.

Make sure you avoid the things that can jeopardise the relationship

Watch out for these pitfalls:

  • the board concentrates on micro-managing (operational issues) instead of the ‘big picture’ (strategy)
  • the EO frustrates the board’s efforts to set policy and strategic planning
  • the EO is slow or reluctant to provide detailed information required by the board
  • the EO, board or individual directors behave in a manner that impacts negatively on the organisation and its internal and external reputations
  • the board has unreasonable expectations of the EO
  • the board fails to provide clear and adequate guidance and support
  • the board or EO lacks enthusiasm and energy to fulfil their respective roles.

Other resources

From Board Connect:

Sharing the Load: Board and EO

From Mills Oakley:

The Board and CEO Relationship