By Nick Van Hevelingen, Consultant
Serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization is a valuable contribution to the community, and a personally enriching experience. A fortunate director will serve on the board of an organization that is held in high regard by constituents and stakeholders alike, is efficiently and professionally run, operates in the black, and is recognized for fulfilling its mission in an exemplary fashion. It has been our experience as a firm that it is the CEO of the organization who deserves the lion's share of the credit.*
What are some of the key attributes of a successful CEO? The most valuable CEO will have a shared vision for the organization and the ability to recruit others in the pursuit of that vision. S/he will consistently make sound management decisions and be able to recognize and nurture talent within the organization. The CEO will is also likely to be a visible presence and positive force in the community's business, civic, and political communities.
A board, however, should keep in mind that while there is no limit to the value a strong and involved CEO can add to an organization, the reverse can also be true. The wrong CEO has equal opportunity to drive change in a negative direction. Enormous good will can be destroyed in far less time than was required to create it. Within just months, surpluses can become deficits, key staff members can leave, and acrimony can replace harmony and enthusiasm among staff members. It's also quite remarkable how quickly word can spread about a poor CEO beyond the walls of the organization - bad news usually travels much faster than good.
Even more destructive, but fortunately rare, is the CEO who betrays his or her public trust and engages in malfeasance or uses the organization for personal gain. The example of the United Way and its president has remained in the minds of board members (and the public) years after the fact and continues to impact the organization.
*(Nonprofit organizations use a variety of terms to designate the most senior staff executive. CEO is used here.)