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Sharing the Vision at Bobby Dodd Institute

“A shared strategic vision is board governance 101,” says Cindy Cheatham, vice president of GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group. At Bobby Dodd Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides employment training and resources for people with disabilities and disadvantages, Board Chair Rodney Hall and President and CEO Wayne McMillan (winner of a 2013 Revolution Award) put that principle into practice every day. In the second installment of our Board Chair-CEO interview series, Cheatham sat down with the dynamic leaders to discuss their approach to collaborative leadership and strong working relationships.

How do you describe the working relationship between a board chair and a

nonprofit CEO?

Hall: Wayne certainly makes it easy for me to do my job as board chair, because of the organizational infrastructure, staff, and processes that he has put in place over the past decade. My role as board chair is to interface with Wayne and be a resource outside the organization. I try to be a sounding board, to give advice, council, and other opinions. He makes sure that the board chairs are trained and well-informed in the organization’s short and long term strategic plans.

McMillan: It’s all about maintaining a supportive relationship with one another. It’s easy for a CEO to get tunnel vision dealing with day-to-day operations, but Rodney gives me fresh perspective. The key, and he brought it up with respect to the strategic plan, is that we have a common vision as to where the organization is going. Most governance models deal with the fiduciary and strategic responsibilities, but there’s a third aspect, which is generative. This has to do with using a portion of our board meetings for discussions about the reasons behind what we’re doing, and the direction in which we’re going.

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What are your thoughts on how to best develop a productive and active board?

McMillan: We believe in board development. Each one of our board members attends Harvard’s Governing for Nonprofit Excellence program. We also do training a minimum of once a year, and some [additional] developmental training with board members. It’s a robust process, because the board is one of the most important aspects of an organization. If you’re willing to make an investment in your board, it will pay off in the long run.

Hall: I moved through various positions on the board, including being on the nominating committee. That allows you to really get to know the organization before you get to this role [as chair], what the real needs of the organization are. When it comes to electing new board members, the fact that you have been through those roles and positions allows you to find better matches: folks that have diverse backgrounds, diverse points of view, and, from a chemistry standpoint, work well with the board, Wayne, and his team.

Rodney, how does your relationship with the CEO differ from your relationship

with the rest of the board? What principles do you adhere to when coordinating

between Wayne and the board?

Most governance models deal with the fiduciary and strategic responsibilities, but there’s a third aspect, which is generative. This has to do with using a portion of our board meetings for discussions about the reasons behind what we’re doing, and the direction in which we’re going.

Hall: We have upwards of 20 board members, and for Wayne to communicate with all of them separately and independently would be a communication challenge. I view part of my role as helping with that communication—to be a conduit to sub-groups on the board, and build consensus around initiatives. [But] as far as ongoing dialogue with other board members, Wayne definitely has that relationship. Because each board member has different areas of expertise, he can go to them independently and seek their advice. It really sort of works both ways: it not only makes the organization stronger, but makes Wayne a better leader and CEO, with all those resources on the board.

What are your processes for assessing and evaluating the CEO, so that you keep an independent perspective in your fiduciary duty?

Hall: We have an executive committee that is made up of about half a dozen people that, on an annual basis, do an independent review of the CEO’s performance as it relates to all the empirical data, our strategic plan, and his personal goals. We have a lot of debate, discussion, and inspection independent of Wayne, but we also get together with him to talk through this. It’s very transparent. We have also brought in outside consultants in different areas of executive management to do independent evaluations. We like to have different perspectives, and I think it’s only healthy for the organization.

McMillan: I think candor and clarity are the two most important things. One of the things that I like about the way we operate is that we establish what Rodney called empirical goals. They’re smart: specific, measurable, and time-bound. We do this on a quarterly basis so there are really no surprises, and we all understand what we’re doing. Then there’s dialogue all through the year with respect to where we are, because everything is ultimately going to be driven by our strategic direction. I am particularly pleased with [the process] because I know what’s expected, can deliver, and ultimately get good feedback.

What advice would you offer in terms of managing relationships among a

board chair, a board, and an executive, to create a high performing organization?

McMillan: Most CEOs and boards get into trouble over roles. We’re very clear on roles and responsibilities, so that we don’t have the board trying to do operations. From the day a board member comes on, we discuss board member roles and roles of staff. You have to have your staff understand what the role of the board is, as well.

Hall: Wayne includes his key staff in all of the relevant [board] meetings, so everybody is on the same page, and everybody has a chance to speak their minds. What he’s done is created an environment where people feel comfortable, feel listened to, and [their ideas] acted upon. It’s completely about how you view your board: are you going to use your board as advisors and listen to them, or is it just a group of folks you had to get together? I think Wayne does the former.

Lightly edited for clarity and brevity

Listen to the podcast, A Conversation with Rodney Hall and Wayne McMillan.

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