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The Chair-CEO Relationship During a Crisis

July 2, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

In a crisis, no matter the sector or organization, CEOs and chairs have to recalibrate their relationship and engagement to find the right balance and learn as they go. They must flex together to redefine the relationship for the current moment in a way that provides mutual value and support. For those navigating a changing relationship, we offer some advice to guide the way.

The best CEO-chair partnerships follow an ongoing rhythm of open communication, while being dynamic and flexible to changing circumstances. The relationship will evolve and change over time, depending on the organization’s internal and external context and the needs of each party. There are times when the relationship will inevitably deepen and require more active engagement from both the CEO and the chair. For example:

  • When a new CEO or chair comes into the role
  • When there are significant organizational changes – a new strategic plan, an upcoming merger/acquisition, major legislative changes
  • When there is a question of leadership or ethics at the top – an issue where the chair needs to understand the process or dynamics to report back to the board

Or when there is a major shock to the system – a crisis. A low-likelihood, high-impact event that can threaten the organization’s survival. We are currently in one of these times. We are in a moment that not only tests the strength of this key relationship but requires the CEO and chair to engage in an entirely different way. Chairs might find themselves unsure of how to strike the right balance between giving the CEO space to lead and ensuring they feel the support and confidence of the board. At the same time, CEOs might find themselves carrying a heavy load and unsure of how best to mobilize the board and chair to respond to the crisis at hand.

The board has a responsibility to monitor the organization’s crisis response and the implications for its people, finances, and strategy, in addition to its regular oversight responsibilities. In order to do this, many boards are meeting more often and receiving regular updates on the organization’s situation and response. For a CEO, this level of engagement could feel like a burden or a blessing – the chair plays a key role in ensuring it is the latter.

The CEO should be focused on the crisis response and managing ongoing operations, drawing on the chair as a sounding-board and strategic advisor. While the CEO is concentrated on the immediate operational details, the chair can add value by complementing this with a higher-level view. The chair plays an important role in reminding the CEO of the long-term vision and purpose of the organization to ensure immediate actions align with the organization’s purpose, values, and longer-term aspirations. Together, they lead the organization to a recovery that is grounded in the organization’s purpose, culture, and values.

Advice for chairs Advice for CEOs Advice for the partnership

  • Let the CEO know you are there to help and available at all times

  • Ask for what you need from the chair and the board

  • Align on expectations, protocols, communication methods, and roles during crisis

  • Keep the CEO focused on the big picture and the organization’s purpose by bringing a long-term view to short-term actions

  • Accept the chair’s support and active engagement in communications, stakeholder engagement, etc., as appropriate

  • Provide each other with timely feedback, including guidance on what you need from each other

  • Ensure the board is not creating unnecessary work, delays, or bottlenecks for management

  • Ask the board to share a message of support and thanks with the team to boost morale and connection

  • Schedule a regular check-in focused on crisis and recovery-related issues and actions; avoid discussing regular business during these check-ins if possible

  • Keep the board disciplined and focused at a high level to avoid well-intentioned micromanaging of the operational response

  • Be specific in articulating what you need from the board and the chair – are you sharing information to keep them in the loop, asking for a decision, looking for new ideas, etc.

  • Communicate as a team to stakeholders, shareholders, donors, etc., aligning crisis communications with the organization’s purpose

  • Where it makes sense, leverage relationships with shareholders, regulators, etc. to take the load off the CEO and show a united front

  • Let the chair know if they or the board are overstepping into operations or creating an undue burden on management

  • Acknowledge the shifting line between governance and operations and be aware that this shift is temporary

  • Ensure the CEO has the support they need from the board and others (external advisors, public relations, etc.)

  • Adopt a no surprises and no holding back policy with the chair – you will likely share more information than normal and together can determine what information the board requires

  • Go easy on each other but hold each other accountable – check-ins are regular but flexible; meeting materials might not be as polished as usual but relevant information is included

  • Clearly articulate the board’s message of trust and confidence in the CEO and provide feedback on their role in the response

  • Check in on how the CEO is doing personally and professionally


Hey WATSON, how can you future-proof the CEO-chair relationship for times of crisis?

The best way to future-proof your relationship for times of crisis is to build a solid foundation of trust and respect, coupled with clear roles, communications, and expectations. At the same time, ensure you maintain professional boundaries so you can have frank and honest discussions and challenge each other, bringing a level of objectivity and avoiding the potential for a close relationship to cloud judgement.

Go one step further and take the lead in future-proofing the board-management relationship. Cultural and personal fault lines have a tendency to crack open in a crisis, creating new challenges that can distract from the real issues at hand. Building a healthy board culture and a constructive board-management dynamic will serve the organization immeasurably in a time of crisis.

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The chemistry, communication, and trust between the CEO and chair have a direct impact on an organization’s ability to meet the challenges presented in a crisis and move forward with purpose. Successful response and recovery depend on the ability for this key strategic partnership to evolve to meet the needs of the day. Across organizations and sectors, we are seeing this partnership evolve and strengthen, bringing balance and focus through uncertainty and preparing organizations for the challenges and opportunities the next paradigm brings.