Small-Group Retreat Strengthens Relationships, Builds Strategic Results

Board chairs and CEOs establish foundations for organization success

At first glance, the experience I was part of during a February 2010 weekend in Philadelphia may seem unusual.

A group of eight CEOs and the chairs of their boards of directors had convened for an intense 24-hour retreat. Although each board chair and CEO team represented dramatically different organizations—at least in terms of history, budget size, agency structure, service area, and programming—there they were, gathered together for the 2010 Alliance for Children and Families Board Chair/CEO (BC/CEO) Institute.

Despite their differences, the pairs shared interest in strengthening their relationships with one another, furthering their understanding of nonprofit governance in a rapidly changing world, and strengthening the strategic capacity of their organizations.

Content Adapts to Changing Conditions

The BC/CEO Institute is offered to members of the Alliance at least once each year. Since it is designed to provide a small-group forum for CEOs and board chairs to engage in deep discussions about leadership issues critical to their organizations’ future success, attendance is limited to no more than 10 pairs.

The institutes are facilitated by Peter Goldberg, president and CEO of the Alliance, and another individual with board leadership experience. For the past four years, I have served as that second facilitator.

We structure the institute in a way that assures that participants dialogue extensively with one another. Rather than learning through presentations, participants are encouraged to be both teachers and students; they share their perceptions and experiences while simultaneously gaining insights from the other attendees.

One past participant described the experience in these words, “The expertise of each participant is solicited, valued, and validated.”

While the format for the weekend is fixed, the content of each institute differs in order to reflect participants’ current realities. At the 2010 institute, for example, discussions centered on the transition from institution-based service to a community focus, strategic partnerships, evolving funding patterns, changes in community expectations, and increased competition. Learn more by reading a more detailed recap of the discussions that took place at the 2010 institute, as well as a summary of the themes that emerged.

Help With Strategic Thinking

The Alliance created the BC/CEO Institute 14 years ago for two primary reasons.

The first was to provide a resource to help boards evolve as the sector pushes for their role to be less focused on operations and more involved with strategic positioning. The second reason was because anecdotal evidence suggested that agencies were higher performing, whether in good times or bad, when the chair and the CEO worked as an effective team to promote strategic leadership at the board and staff levels.

The board chairs and CEOs who have attended validate that these results are achieved. Although the institute is only 24 hours long, they report these are some of the most productive hours they ever spend with one another.

Both board chairs and CEOs indicate that the institute prepares their agencies to succeed in the ever-changing environment of nonprofit human services. After attending the institute once, many CEOs choose to return in subsequent years with their successive chairs because they say the experience is so effective.

Unlike typical day-to-day interactions, when time is limited and it’s difficult for board chairs and CEOs to engage in deep discussions about significant issues facing the organization, the institute is a time away from the office and local distractions. CEOs and board chairs report that their conversations at the institute are intense and revealing, providing a more meaningful context as they continue their work together at home.

To encourage continued dialogue once the participants return to their organizations, board chairs and CEOs use the institute to identify a project that is specific to their organization and critical to advancing its strategic interests. At various points during the institute, the full group comes together to report their progress in developing their projects. Each team provides and receives ideas and suggestions from the others.

Shortly before the institute concludes, teams provide detailed descriptions of their plans, including the rationale for it, how they will define success, specific implementation steps, and what benchmarks will be used to evaluate progress.

Strength in Shared Experience

For board chairs, the BC/CEO Institute is often the first opportunity they have had to engage with their peers from other Alliance member agencies.

Until they participate in the institute, it’s typical for their ideas about their role as board chair to be formed more by their knowledge of, and experience in, local communities. But by the end of the institute, they report a benefit in hearing from chairs at other organizations.

They are relieved to learn that others are challenged by similar issues. They welcome the opportunity to network with others by giving and receiving suggestions and ideas to strengthen their leadership at home.

One newly-elected chair who attended the February 2010 institute commented that she left feeling energized, excited, and optimistic about the future because the experience gave her a new way of understanding the role and responsibility of the board, as well as her position as chair.

Future-Oriented Leadership

For CEOs, the institute provides an opportunity to develop a common understanding with their board chairs regarding key strategic issues, including how they, as a team, can provide leadership that is future-oriented.

As one CEO commented, “I think this unique opportunity to set a strategic foundation with your board chair is invaluable. Even in our cost containment environment, I made the choice to invest in this institute with my new board chair, and it has helped our teamwork, joint leadership, and personal relationship.”

Even after the institute is concludes, participants report that it is often on the trip home that they complete their relationship-building process. They arrive home prepared to provide a new level of strategic leadership for their agency.

“The content is excellent and helped my chair to better understand the complexities and challenges of the current realities we face,” says one CEO. “Developing a project together—in our case a strategic plan—takes the information and learning to a very practical and useful level. I endorse this institute and consider it a great return on investment.”

Reed Henderson served as president and CEO of Alliance member Family Lifeline, Richmond, Va., until his retirement in June 2008. Prior to joining Family Lifeline in 1997, he was senior vice president for member services of Family Service America, the organization that preceded the Alliance. For the past four years, Henderson has helped facilitate the Alliance’s annual Board Chair/CEO Institute, drawing on his more than 40 years of experience providing strategic leadership to organizations that help strengthen families.