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Leadership Pas de Deux at Atlanta Ballet

In classical ballet, pas de deux refers to a dance between two performers. It also describes how Atlanta Ballet’s Executive Director Arturo Jacobus and Board Chair Allen W. Nelson (a 2013 Revolution Award winner) lead the company: a balanced, collaborative, graceful approach that depends heavily on a solid working relationship. In the first of a series of NOW interviews with nonprofit board and staff leaders, GCN’s Cindy Cheatham facilitated a conversation about building that relationship, defining their roles, and working through disagreements.

How would you describe the ideal relationship between a nonprofit’s executive director and board chair? 

Nelson: The relationship we’ve managed to have over time is one of complete cooperation and trust and a high degree of communication. We’ve been fortunate that we came to this process with a similar set of values: what a board should be doing and not doing, as well as what an executive director should be doing and not be doing.

Jacobus: I think it starts with mutual respect and trust. Transparency and communication is really important and having a good understanding of the roles and responsibility of each position. Mutual support is really important. Whether it is the chairman and executive director going to the board to support the vision of the artistic director, or the strategic direction of the executive director, I think supporting each other in various roles is critical. Most importantly, all of us have a mutual understanding of why we’re here, the mission of the art and the community. At the end of the day, our main concern is what we put on the stage and the well being of the dancers—it’s that understanding of our common purpose.

Allen, how did you come to be the chair of this board? What is the role of the CEO in endorsing someone for the position? 

Nelson: Our sequence was unusual in that my first role as chair was to hire a new executive director. I came to be the chair in 2009 after being on the board for three years. Another board member, frankly, just asked me. I thought about where the organization was, what we could ultimately do, and how the board could help support the mission and the artistic vision that John [McFall, artistic director] had. It seemed like an exciting opportunity.

My first job coming on board was to put together a search committee for the executive director. It all took a bit of time, but it turned out well for us as an organization. I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about how I was going to drive change or strategy. Arturo [Jacobus] came on board just four or five months after I came into my position, so we started roughly at the same time with the organization. Therefore, we were able to get out of the gate together. We didn’t have things already set up in a way that was Arturo’s way or [my] way.We got to build that together. I don’t necessarily recommend every new board chair come into that situation, but I think in our circumstance, just by good fortune, it worked out well.

Arturo, what role do you feel the CEO has in influencing who the board chair is? 

Jacobus: The shorthand I’ve used for quite a few years is that the executive director needs to lead a board to lead. I think that an executive director usually has several good years of experience in nonprofit organizations, has worked with [a few] boards and knows the nuts and bolts in terms of best practices, what needs to be in place. Couple that with the fact that the executive director is working full time and thinking about it full time. Even the most dedicated and enthusiastic board member has another life, another job, whereas the executive director focuses full-time on what needs to be done to make a more effective organization.

It is important that the two individuals have the kind of relationship where ideas and recommendations can be brought up and be taken seriously, then move forward if they have merit. That is what I mean by leading a board to lead. 

I think it is a mistake, on the one extreme, for an executive director to assume too much authority and have the board be a kind of “rubber stamp.” It is also a mistake for an executive director to sit back and say, “Well, my job is managing the company and their job is running the board, so I’ll just take what is handed down.” It is the responsibility of the executive director to make sure everything is running properly; but when it comes to the board, it should be brought to the attention of the chair so that he or she can act upon it. 

The selection of the board chair is critical. I have seen many organizations that were sailing smoothly, until they had a change of board leadership and everything just kind of fell apart, because there was no shared understanding of where the organization needed to be going. That relationship is so delicate and so important that it cannot happen in a vacuum. I don’t mean this cynically, but it can’t be entrusted to democracy by just saying, “Who would like to be board chair?” and “Let’s vote.” The decision must be very carefully thought through and nurtured, and the person who has the most time to think about that is the executive director. The only way to do it is to have [the ED] play a central role in the selection.

How do you work out a disagreement or tricky issue within your partnership? 

Jacobus: Early on, Allen [Nelson] implemented a practice that I was not particularly thrilled about because of its propensity for mischief. But, he did it for very good reasons and for best practices, transparency and, most importantly, to make the board feel empowered. For every executive committee meeting and every board meeting, he ends the meeting with a quasi-executive session where everybody on the staff leaves except for [Artistic Director] John and me and we interface with the board or the executive committee. We have that opportunity to talk about those things we wouldn’t normally talk about in front of our own staffs. Then, John and I leave the room and they have the opportunity to have a more productive dialogue. Over the last three years, that has turned out to be one of the most valuable practices that Allen has brought to his conduct of the board.

Of course, my experience, my baggage is that when the board or executive committee has an executive session, it usually means trouble. Probably your job is on the line or something like that. However, by making it a regular practice, it has done wonders for board interaction and open dialogue—we all see it as a positive thing. The point is, if and when the time comes when there is a difficult issue or a disagreement, the mechanism is already in place to deal with that. It is not going to be an unusual or extraordinary circumstance for the board or executive committee to deal with it. I think it is a brilliant practice Allen put in place.

Nelson: Also, I have made it my practice after executive sessions to have a conversation with Arturo to generally let him know about the broad topics, not verbatim discussions about who said what. Interestingly, in the past few meetings, some of the discussions from the executive sessions have actually spilled out to our social time immediately following those meetings, so Arturo [Jacobus] and [Artistic Director] John engaged in those discussions. That social time is productive because it allows the discussion to continue in a more relaxed, informal setting and it allows each of us to get to know each other and the staff better. 

In summary, what advice do you have for how a board chair and nonprofit CEO can most effectively work together? 

Jacobus: View it as a partnership, not a hierarchy (although we all know it’s there). A lot can get accomplished and all the other things can come into play: transparency, mutual respect, trust, and open communication.

Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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