“I feel like I’ve just finished the greatest book I’ve ever read, and I’m sad.” This was the observation of one of 70 attendees at the first ever national symposium on the leadership role of family foundation CEOs, sponsored by the National Center for Family Philanthropy on March 23-24 in Washington, DC. Other participants praised the symposium as being valuable to their own effectiveness as well as to their foundations. “The symposium reminded me again, just how personal this work is. It provided a good readjustment of my lens.”

Although there have been informal conversations of family foundation staff at various gatherings over the years, “it is time, perhaps is even overdue, to bring discipline to the conversation,” said Bruce Maza co-chair, with Kathleen Odne, of the CEO Initiative Advisory Committee (PDF). National Center President Ginny Esposito said that the goal of the whole initiative, of which the symposium was one component, is “to address an inexplicable gap in our philanthropic understanding of the complex responsibilities and opportunities of family foundation CEOs.”

What follows is a brief summary of the preliminary research findings explored at the symposium. We’ll cover more of the discussions in future issues of FGN. A complete list of the sessions and speakers is available in the symposium program (PDF). Note: Because participants were promised a confidential space for discussion, they will not be quoted by name in FGN’s symposium coverage.

Early Insights from Interview Studies of CEOs and Board Chairs

Prior to the symposium, Esposito conducted personal interviews with 60 family foundation CEOs, asking them about their background, various aspects of their role, and their hopes for their future. Concurrently, National Center Senior Fellow Alice Buhl interviewed 15 current or former board chairs to get a sampling of their views on the CEO’s leadership role. In addition, the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University conducted an online survey of 200 CEOs. Esposito stressed that she and Buhl could only share early insights. With over 400 pages of raw data, the National Center has not had time to complete a thorough analysis of what the data show. Those findings will be released in a report to the field later this year.

Since this kind of study has not been done before, there is no benchmarking data. “But it’s reasonable to conclude that how CEOs come to the job has changed over time,” Esposito explained. Half of the people she interviewed had previously had significant fundraising responsibilities for a nonprofit. “It says a lot about the sensitivity they have for their grantees,” Esposito noted. Also, 35 percent had been hired through a professional search process.

Esposito also found the CEOs in the interview sample to be the “most mutually supportive group I can imagine. You have relied on and you have been peer mentors.” A key early conclusion was that most of CEO’s professional development does not come from professional organizations but from colleague connections. “That says a lot about the value of having more mechanisms for CEOs to meet together.”

On Leadership

Esposito found the CEOs were often very aware of the difference between ego and leadership “You sit at this point between what the family and the board are trying to accomplish, what your staff is doing, and what the community is talking to you about.” She said a style that is more facilitative reflects leadership rather than ego.

From her interviewees’ responses, Esposito concluded that “Leadership is best exercised when it is calm, clear, consistent, centered, and committed.” She described the role as being in the middle of a swirling eddy. “Someone has to be the center presence around which all of this can move in the most productive way possible.” The role requires diplomacy, a high tolerance for ambiguity, and emotional intelligence. There is also a risk of “situational leadership.” The CEOs told her that it’s hard to get a big picture perspective or lead with a long-term vision if you are just putting out fires. Some CEOs also lamented having to spend significantly more effort in “getting everyone on the same page rather than getting on with the work.”

“Leadership is best exercised when it is calm, clear, consistent, centered, and committed.”

The CEOs noted the challenge of dealing with family dynamics, something that’s particularly acute for CEOs who are also members of the family. Esposito suggested that “if we as a field help shift the attention of boards to their key role of exercising good governance, then more of the family-oriented issues can be dealt with in the context of ‘what does it take to govern the family foundation?’”

Board Chairs Weigh In

Alice Buhl, in reporting on her interviews with 15 chairs or former chairs acknowledged that while this is a small sample, “we needed the input of the people not in the room. We were looking for ideas, not percentages.” She also chose examples of foundations for whom the relationship between the board and CEO work well. For the symposium, she focused on two questions:

In what ways is your CEO effective? What advice would you give other CEOs?

Buhl identified four themes she heard in the responses.

Learn and Grow. The chairs said their CEOs were effective because of their ability to evolve in their thinking, in the same way families do. The CEOs also have lived through family changes—marriages, divorces, the rising next generation, the aging senior generation. “They appreciate your ability to adapt to different expectations,” Buhl said. “Some of your foundations are very different from when you started. They’ve grown in size, the community has changed, trustees have changed. They appreciate your being nimble. On the other hand, it can be a challenge to avoid becoming stale when there is not a lot of rotation of board and staff.”

Give and Earn Respect. Mutual respect between the CEO and the family is essential. One chair said “it works because we are two human beings who respect each other.”

Mutual respect between the CEO
and the family is essential.

Understand the Family Culture and Dynamics. On the culture question, one chair said of their foundation’s CEO: She has sympathy and appreciation for the way the family thinks and feels.” Buhl found some sentiment that it is the chair’s role to help the CEO separate out the family’s issues from the foundation’s work. “Their willingness to play that role can make a big difference in the CEO’s job.” There are, however, board governance issues that are intertwined with the family that need the CEO’s attention, such as engaging the next generation or bringing on new family members and trustees.

Clarify and Negotiate Your Leadership Role. Buhl reported that the chairs talked about this in different ways, for example: “You’re the CEO but it is really someone else’s name on the door.” “Stay in close contact with the board members, make sure you know their interests and help them figure out what they want to do.” “They have their ego in check and get along with people who have strong ideas.” “The CEO’s role is to be the foundation’s chief strategist and chief manager.” “Things work best when expectations are spelled out and understood.”

What More Can We Know?

Esposito said the preliminary look at the research has raised issues that need further exploration. Among them: How to meet the needs of CEOs for professional development/support and personal renewal; how to support the CEO in advancing effective governance; and how to support CEOs and boards as they navigate CEO transitions. All these will be encompassed in the CEO Initiative work going forward.

Additional Reading From the FGN Archives:

CEO Transitions in Family Foundations (December 2010 FGN)
A Job Like No Other: Family Foundation Chief Executive (July 2010 FGN)
Profiles in Family Philanthropy: Lessons from One Family’s Transition from Founder to Nonfamily Director (January 2009 FGN)
Ask the Center: Family Members as Staff (November 2010 FGN)