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The Dual Role of the Chief Elected and Chief Staff Officers

By Lori Prospero, CAE

I found myself in a boardroom being interviewed for the positon of executive director. When it came time for me to ask questions, I inquired about the association’s governance model. I figured this would give me a good sense of the relationship between, and the understanding of, the distinct roles of the board and the executive director. Their response? “Well, it changes daily based on the level of trust that exists between the board and the person sitting in the ED’s chair”.

While their response was concerning, I sensed that those directors wanted to re-build trust and to increase their understanding of governance. So, after much deliberation, I accepted the position knowing that it would take time to develop an effective partnership with the board of directors – one that recognizes the dual role of the Chief Elected Officer (CEO) and the Chief Staff Officer (CSO) in association leadership.

Fast-forward ten years and I am proud to say that I remain the executive director for Owl Child Care Services of Ontario, an association that is now seen as a high performing association and a governance leader both in the field of early childhood education, and beyond. Throughout Owl’s journey, key learnings have been identified that contributed to building an effective partnership between the board chair or Chief Elected Officer (CEO) and Chief Staff Officer (CSO).

1. Clarify Roles

There is a distinct difference between the role of the CSO and that of the CEO. This role delineation must be agreed upon and documented in board policy.

  • The CEO’s job is to manage the board – not the association. In this role, the CEO ensures that the board acts in accordance with its own policies and by-laws; keeps board discussion on strategic issues; monitors performance of directors and the board as a whole. 
  • The CSO’s job is to manage the day-to-day operations of the association, within the limits established by board policy and strategic direction. In doing so, the CSO communicates frequently and openly with the CEO and the Board, providing timely information while managing programs, services and staff.

CSO satisfaction, and therefore turnover, is linked to the effectiveness of the CEO/CSO partnership. It is imperative that the CEO and CSO form a strong leadership partnership, understand and respect their different roles and rely on board policy when issues or differences of opinion arise that require role clarity.

So, how do we clarify roles and avoid a break-down between the CEO and CSO:

  • Establish or Adopt a Governance Model: Regardless of the type of board you have, written policy is key. Ensure that the policy includes role delineation between the CEO, CSO and the Board.
  • Joint Leadership: The CEO and CSO should continue to have open dialogue about role clarity, demonstrating ownership for their distinct roles. 
  • Effective Board Orientation: This starts during recruitment with FAQs and phone interviews to clarify roles. On election night, we give each new director a book on governance — of which many are available in the CSAE Book Store. Prior to their first meeting, we provide a 3-hour Board Orientation (mandatory for all directors) lead by the CEO.
  • Keep the Agenda Strategic: Working together, the CEO and CSO ensure that board meeting agendas are robust and strategic in nature; clarify any role ambiguity before the meeting.
  • Governance Monitor Role: Assign a director or someone on the governance committee to support the CEO in the role of Governance Monitor. Their role is to identify when discussions shift into operations; thus keeping the board on task with their governance and oversight role. This could be as simple has having 3 coloured cards (green, yellow, or red) used to identify “role creep”.

2. Understand Leadership Styles

Whenever there is a change in the CEO or CSO role, it is important to take time to get to know one another. According to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, there are unconscious differences in how we use our capability to process and make decisions. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment which expanded on Jung’s concepts, systemically allows you to recognize individual differences and acts as a guide to understand how your individual preferences affect your leadership style. With this in mind, add the MBTI ® to your toolkit. Understanding your own Jungian type will help you to better understand each other’s strengths, dispositions and communication preferences or style and ultimately influence how you can best work together to form a strong leadership partnership between the CEO and CSO.

3. Plan for CEO Succession

High performance associations plan for succession – not only of their CSO, but also the CEO. Don’t overlook this critical tool to ensure effective board leadership. When it comes time to appoint the board chair, does the conversation start with, “Who’s willing to take on the role of chair this year?”, or “I guess it’s my turn”. If this sounds familiar, then consider the creation of a chair-elect or vice-chair role that transitions to chair the following year. When this person is identified in advance, the CEO and CSO can jointly include that individual in regular meetings, and agree to a knowledge transfer and training plan to ensure that the chair-elect is ready to assume the role of chair and hit the ground running. One thing we have found valuable is to have the chair-elect and I attend the Symposium for Chief Elected and Chief Staff Officers offered by the CSAE. This provides dedicated time for the chair-elect and I to connect and to begin building our leadership partnership.

4. Encourage Effective Board – Management Relations

To encourage openness, healthy exchange of ideas and debate, the CEO plays a key role in encouraging effective board-management relations. In addition to monitoring board performance, the CEO can encourage relationship building by making time for directors and the CSO to connect both personally and professionally. Another way that the CEO promotes effective board relations is through a board mentoring program. Upon being elected, the board is divided into mentoring triads. This allows the new directors to connect before, during and after board meetings to discuss key agenda items or seek clarification.

5. Establish Policies to Guide Practice

The CEO plays a key role in establishing and monitoring performance to five key policies that support role clarity and linkages between the CEO, CSO and the Board as a whole.

  • Board Code of Conduct: provides clear expectations for directors and clarifies roles. The CEO stresses the importance of the Code of Conduct during orientation and onboarding and monitors the Board’s performance in relation to it.
  • Enterprise Risk Management: guides discussion and debate on key issues. Assessing risk is now easier to manage and engages our board in strategic discussion about risk tolerance related to key goals or activities. The CEO and CSO jointly use this policy to ensure that timely and relevant information comes forward to support the board in its role of oversight and protection.
  • Evaluating the CSO: sets out 3 criteria for evaluating the CSO: financial management, compliance to governance policies and achievement of strategic plan goals. If you don’t have this policy, develop one now – your CSO will thank you!
  • General Executive Constraints: establishes the boundaries of acceptable actions for the CSO, CEO and other Officers. Policies begin at the most general, inclusive level and are further defined until the point at which any remaining reasonable interpretation by the CSO, other others listed, is acceptable to the Board.
  • Monitoring Policy Compliance: provides a framework for the board to monitor compliance to its Governance policies and forms one part of the CSO’s evaluation.

6. Establish Communication Preferences

Jointly determine preferred communication methods – including the level of detail required and preferred formats. This applies to the board agenda, reports to the board, financials, strategic plan progress reports and much more. Working together, the CEO and CSO, in consultation with the board, can define what is relevant, meaningful, reliable and timely. Once these are defined, the CSO can ensure the content, frequency and level of detail meet the board’s needs.

7. Conduct Timely Evaluations

In order to have an effective board, the CEO and CSO must collaborate to ensure that evaluation is top of mind. A fulsome evaluation program evaluates board meetings, director performance, the board – as a whole – and the CSO. Joint leadership by the CEO and CSO confirms the importance of evaluation with a focus on continuous improvement.

A successful partnership between the CEO and CSO inspires a culture of trust, provides real clarity to their distinct roles and fosters effective board-management relations through collaborative leadership. Ultimately, when the CEO and CSO work congruently and towards common goals, the association benefits, CSO job satisfaction is higher and directors are more engaged.