Since Jeff Finkle’s recent announcement of his impending retirement as the long-serving President/CEO of the International Economic Development Council, I’ve been reflecting on our work together on the governance improvement front over the past 26 years. In my professional opinion, one of Jeff’s signal contributions to IEDC as its chief executive officer – a key part of his legacy – is a fully developed Board of Directors capable of governing at a high level. Working in close partnership with Jeff and his Executive Team, the IEDC Board has made the governing decisions that, along with Jeff’s leadership, have resulted in IEDC’s stellar performance in carrying out its mission, its financial stability, and its expansion in terms of both program diversification and geographic reach.
Jeff and I met in the mid-1990s, not long after the American Society of Association Executives published my first nonprofit governance book, Boards That Work, which led to Jeff’s inviting me to present a preconference workshop for the association he then headed, the Council for Urban Economic Development. Over the course of my speaking at several other CUED and, later, IEDC meetings on the subject of the board-chief executive partnership, I learned from conversations with Jeff that he was – far more than the average nonprofit CEO – keenly interested in advances in the rapidly evolving art and science of nonprofit governance, and in the nuts and bolts work of governing.
A meeting with Jeff at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel in 2003 marked the beginning of our active collaboration on the governance improvement front. Jeff had invited me to spend a couple of hours with him in the lobby of that historic hotel on Cleveland’s Public Square, discussing nonprofit governance principles and practices. Not long into our meeting, I realized that this was anything but a casual discussion. Jeff had obviously been keeping up with, and seriously thinking about, significant developments, and I was quite impressed by his probing – often quite challenging – questions about the board-chief executive partnership and the role of the CEO in developing the board’s governing capacity. If I recall correctly, at least an hour of the two we spent together focused on the question of board governing structure. Jeff was particularly interested in the transition from traditional board “silo” committees aligned with specific program areas, such as international economic development and job creation and retention, to committees aligned with broad governing functions such as strategic planning and performance monitoring. I walked out of the Renaissance feeling like I had been interviewed – indeed, grilled – on my approach to building a board’s governing capacity, but I wasn’t sure why.
I learned why a few months later, in the fall of 2004, when Jeff called to say he wanted to retain me to serve as consultant to an IEDC task force that would be chaired by Ronnie Bryant, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Partnership. This “Governance Improvement Task Force” was charged to fashion a set of recommendations relative to the governing role, structure and processes of the Board of the new organization – IEDC – resulting from the merger of the Council for Urban Economic Development and the American Economic Development Council. Thus began an intense, deeply satisfying collaboration with Jeff, Ronnie Bryant and the economic development leaders making up the Task Force that resulted in the June 2, 2005 “Action Report to the IEDC Board of Directors.”
I learned over the course of this ambitious and ultimately successful board development initiative and my subsequent collaboration with Jeff that he is one of those rare nonprofit CEOs who is truly a “Master of the Governing Game.” On his watch, the IEDC Board of Directors has become one of the highest-impact boards I’ve encountered over the course of my 35-plus years as a governance consultant – a model of effective governance for nonprofit organizations of all shapes and sizes. As I worked on one of my most popular books, The Board-Savvy CEO, in 2014, Jeff was constantly on my mind as the quintessential board-savvy leader who is a world-class expert in the rapidly changing field of nonprofit governance, who makes the governing function a top-tier chief executive function, who is committed to a close partnership with his Board, and who embraces the role of “Chief Board Capacity Builder” with gusto.
IEDC governance has benefitted tremendously from Jeff’s board-savvy leadership, as has the field of nonprofit governance generally. And, for me, collaborating with Jeff on the governance front over the years has enriched my professional life, deepened my knowledge and sharpened my skills as a nonprofit governance advisor. I wish him all the best on the next leg of his journey. And while I hope that Jeff’s future is replete with personal satisfaction, I also hope that he will find the time to share his rich governing experience with nonprofit CEO-aspirants, whose success at the helm will depend heavily on building a close, positive, and productive partnership with their board. They would be hard-pressed to find a more powerful advisor!