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Board Engagement: The CEO is the Catalyst for Change


Debra Thompson

Over the years, I have heard many board members and CEOs/Executive Directors lament the lack of board engagement. Tragically, this is a “chicken and egg” problem where the activities that can improve engagement are unclear along with who should be the catalyst for change. This creates inertia where boards continue to do what they have always done and wish they could get a different result. In my view, there IS a pathway forward, and it starts with the CEO.

People are often shocked when I say that because the responsibility for board engagement ultimately lies with the board. While this is true, many people don’t realize that “staff support to the board” is an administrative role delegated to the CEO. That said, I also recognize that every CEO I have ever worked with needs “permission” as well as support from the board leadership to “own and live into” this role.

Here are steps to get past the inertia:

1. Schedule a board training, including best practices from the Standards for Excellence® An

Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector and BoardSource. Understanding the

nuances of the board versus CEO roles and responsibilities based on the organizational lifecycle stage is a critical first step. 

  1. This training should include these outcomes:

  • a. Challenge board assumptions about their role in “telling the CEO what to do.” Some board members believe that it is “their job” to direct the CEO tactically. They lack understanding of the CEO’s responsibility to craft a meaningful organizational strategy and give board members “something to react to” in terms of vision, goals, and objectives.

  • b. The CEO must be willing to embrace this role and change their personal behavior to develop a more organized approach and outline how the board and its committees can support the achievement of goals and objectives. They must also provide appropriate information to support the board’s oversight function.

2. Ensure “staff support to the board” is accountable in the CEO’s job description. I am

shocked by the number that does not include this because you can’t expect someone to do

something that is not in their job description. The CEO can (and should) suggest adding this

accountability and have it approved by the Executive Committee/Board. AND the board should

give their “blessing” to the CEO to help create a structure to better support board engagement.

3. Ensure that a meaningful strategic plan exists. It is difficult to engage board members if they

lack understanding of the goals that they are working toward, either individually or

collectively. This is also the CEO’s responsibility to facilitate and to engage the board in that


4. Align the strategic plan to the board committee structure. The Governance Committee has an

important role here. If a Governance Committee does not exist, I recommend establishing one.

The Governance Committee completes the following, with staff support provided by the CEO

and/or an outside consultant:

  • a. Analyze board structure to ensure that the committees are appropriate for the organization’s size and that responsibilities are in the “right place.” For example, some boards have separate Personnel Committees, when the board has only one staff member (the CEO). Board Source recommends that the “CEO liaison” and strategic plan oversight functions reside with the Executive Committee.

  • b. Survey board members to identify the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities they are willing to bring to board service, ask them what committees they would be interested in serving on, and get their feedback on any proposed committee structure changes.

  • c. Determine “Management Service Volunteerism” that the CEO needs from board members to advance the strategic plan within the committee structure. Management Service Volunteerism utilizes the technical and professional skills of the board members to help with certain activities. The CEO is the “gatekeeper” of when and how this happens. This drives the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities of the board members who are placed on committees. Some of our clients have recognized through this process that the organization doesn’t have the appropriate skill or demographic diversity of board members, and board and committee recruitment priorities often come out of this exercise.

  • d. Individual committee chairs and the CEO receives training on how to oversee the work of the committee, engage committee members, and work together to achieve desired outcomes. It is the CEO’s responsibility to work with the board and committee chairs to structure their meetings around the “board agenda of work” and to orchestrate the engagement of board and committee members. The expectations should be codified into board orientation materials so effective practice can continue.

While this may seem like a “lot of work,” it is straightforward and can be accomplished through three (3) short meetings of the Governance Committee and a board retreat, when facilitated by the CEO, with help from a governance consultant.

Debra Thompson is President and Founder of Strategy Solutions and is a licensed consultant, trainer

and peer reviewer for the Standards for Excellence® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the

Nonprofit Sector and is a certified BoardSource trainer. She has helped dozens of organizations

improve their board engagement by aligning the board “agenda of work” with the strategic plan and teaching boards and CEOs how to better work together to achieve their desired outcomes.

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