Q: I’m curious. If you were to list the most important traits of a CEO looking to build a partnership with the board, what would those be? And, whether or not it’s on your list, how important do you see a sense of humor being? Is it helpful in creating a bond between the board and CEO?


A: Let’s take your questions about the sense of humor first. Few would refute that the world of nonprofits can, at least at times, be totally wacky. A sense of humor on everyone’s part can make life a lot more pleasant and a lot less stressful. Being able to make a joke, or laugh at one, is certainly healthier than drowning one’s sorrows in the bottom of a glass when faced with some of the situations with which a CEO is frequently faced.

As to being helpful in creating a bond between the CEO and the board directors, I would again have to agree – as do the researchers. In 1989, Vinton published “Humor in the Workplace: Is it more than telling jokes?” In that article he wrote the “bonding aspect of humor may have a significant impact on workplace productivity and employee levels of satisfaction.” Huang and Kuo published a literature review on the topic in the Journal of Social Sciences in 2011 entitled, “Does Humor Matter? From Organization Management Perspective [sic].” They summarized the findings of Sultanoff (1993) and Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray and Weir (2003) writing, “(Humor) can be seen to facilitate communication, to build relationships, to reduce stress, to provide perspective and deflate self-importance or undue emphasis on a particular project or policy and to promote concentration and motivation.” They also referenced the 2002 findings of Greatbatch and Clark: “Humor in communication creates an open atmosphere by awakening positive emotions that enhance listening, understanding and acceptance of messages.” While the interactions between CEOs and board directors in the nonprofit sector may not have been the specific subject of these studies, I think the findings may safely be transferred.

The more difficult question is what is on my own list of personality traits that I believe lead to strong CEO/board partnerships. As someone whose academic background is in interpersonal and organizational communication, my first trait would probably have to be a skilled communicator – someone who listens well, who clarifies what he or she hears, who is aware of body language, who speaks unambiguously, who makes sure his or her messages are interpreted as they were intended to be, and who knows when to focus on task and when to focus on maintenance (the interpersonal needs).

An openness to different viewpoints and ideas (definitely related to communication!) would be high on my list. Directors bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the board table, potentially making any decision stronger. But, they have to feel that knowledge and experience will be welcomed and valued if they share it. The CEO who is quick to admit that he or she does not have all the answers – even if this is that person’s day job – will attract willing partners to help coax out the best approach.

Since the work of Whitener, Brodt, Korsgaard and Werner (1998) indicates that personal trust is related to cooperation, performance and better communication, I would say my third trait would be a willingness to “get personal.” My friend and colleague Mary Hiland found in 2013 that the highest level of trust is “rooted in shared experiences or interests,” which, according to her, requires intentionally getting personal – asking and answering questions about life beyond the boardroom. At the very least, this might mean taking each director out for coffee once a year to find out more about their commitment to the mission, what makes them tick and what they have to offer.

Related to the issue of trust is vulnerability – another trait that I believe belongs on the list. If there is to be a true partnership, the CEO should be able to share with the directors what keeps him or her up at night, without thinking that implies weakness or incompetence. I find that directors respect such vulnerability. It earns their trust and their willingness to express vulnerability in return.

Having used the word “respect” in the previous paragraph, I should be sure that trait is on the list as well, even though I’m sure you’ve felt it underlying everything I’ve said so far. Besides respect for different viewpoints, there must be respect for the different experiences, different cultures (perhaps we should add cultural competence to our list as well), different priorities (yes, these are volunteers, typically with their own full-time jobs), and different responsibilities the directors have in relationship to the CEO.

Respect does not mean allowing things to slide. Having high expectations of the directors would also be on my list. We all know that “people do for people.” We also know that we respect (there’s that word again!) and work harder for those who expect the most from us. So, yes, if we are looking at traits that are most likely to build partnerships, high expectations would have to be included.

Finally, I believe the CEO should be able to see the big picture and share that readily and coherently with the directors. They will not only feel more like equal partners – generating a more positive relationship – but they will have the background information they need to provide the most relevant feedback and optimal solutions.

What is on your list?  I’d love to hear. Write and tell me.