5 Critical Keys Series: #2 Forge an Especially Close Partnership With Your Board Chair

by | Sep 9, 2023 | Articles, Board-CEO Relationship, Board-Savvy CEOs

Over the years, I’ve almost always kicked off my governance workshops for public/nonprofit chief executives at annual conferences by asking participants to share their lists of the top five board-CEO relationship issues they’re grappling with.  I estimate that the partnership with their board chair (or president) has made at least 50 percent of the lists.  This isn’t surprising when you consider that if you’re the chief executive  of a public/nonprofit organization, such as a school district or transit authority, your board chair is one of your highest-stakes stakeholders, whose support is critical to achieving your leadership goals, and whose opposition can dramatically reduce your effectiveness and limit your impact.

In light of the stakes involved, once you’ve taken the helm of an organization, you’re well-advised to make turning your board chair into an ally and close collaborator a top priority and to get started developing the relationship as soon as possible.  If you wait for full-blown relationship problems to emerge, more often than not they’ll prove to be extraordinarily difficult to remedy and perhaps even professionally fatal.  The good news, in my experience, is that if you take the initiative in relationship building early enough, and devote the time required, you can build a solid partnership with your chair.  The bad news is that you might very well have a daunting challenge on your hands.  You can expect to be blessed with chairs who are not the least interested in being your partner, who see themselves as your adversary, whose personality makes working with them a painful experience, among other barriers you’ve got to overcome.  But overcoming these hurdles is a must if you aspire to thrive as well as survive at the helm over the long run.  The chief executives I’ve observed who have been real winners at the partnership building game have employed five strategies.  They:  (1) adopt the right mind-set; (2) get to know the chair really well – up close and personal; (3) reach agreement on the division of labor early-on; (4) actively help the chair succeed in leading board deliberations; and (5) capitalize on opportunities to provide the chair with non-monetary compensation.

Bringing the right mindset to the partnership building game will get you a long way, while the wrong mindset can stop you in your tracks.  One of my recent coaching clients – superintendent of a large urban school district – described the mindset that helped him forge a partnership with the school board president that was really close and extraordinarily productive in these words:  “My board president and I make up what I think of as my district’s ‘strategic governing team.’  We, together, make sure our school board functions as a really high-impact governing body that makes a huge positive difference in our district – most importantly in terms of student achievement, but also our district’s financial stability and image in the community.”  He went on to say that one of his key responsibilities as CEO of the district was to provide his president with the support she needed to function as a really strong leader of school board deliberations and to ensure that she had a richly satisfying experience chairing the board.

The success of your relationship building effort will depend heavily on your getting to know your chair really well as early in your new relationship as possible.  In-depth familiarity is an indispensable foundation for relationship building.  What I’ve found works quite well is spending several hours with your new chair over the course of two to three meetings, asking your chair questions and listening.   In conducting these information gathering sessions, I counsel you to shut up and listen, rather than preach and teach.  Examples of very nuts and bolts questions you might ask:  What got you involved  in (K-12 education; public transit; economic development…..)?  What motivated you to (run for a seat on the board, seek appointment to the board……)?  What issues are you really passionate about that you’d like to be engaged in addressing?  What’s your assessment of the board’s effectiveness as a governing body – what are some board development needs you see?  What impact do you see yourself having as the board chair?  How do you think we should communicate on an ongoing basis – in one-on-one meetings?  How often?  Would you like me to provide you with written briefings about issues coming to the board?  Are you interested in speaking on behalf of the (district, authority, corporation….) in public forums?  What professional goals would you like to achieve during your tenure as chair in addition to chairing board meetings, such as getting engaged in our state or national association?  You’ll easily come up with other very specific questions that will help you understand what makes your new partner tick.  Again, ask, then be quiet and listen, listen, listen.  Of course, by caring enough to ask and listen, you’ll not only gain valuable knowledge, you’ll also bond emotionally with your new partner.

The fundamental – and obvious – division of labor between you and your new chair should be confirmed, but typically doesn’t need much discussion:  the chair leads the board’s deliberations and plays a key role in the development of the board’s governing capacity; you, as chief executive, are responsible for all internal operations, supporting the board in carrying out its governing responsibilities, and executing board policies.  But you shouldn’t forget that you and your board chair share what you might call the diplomatic function.  To avert tension, you’re well advised to sit down and work out how you and your chair will divide external representation responsibilities.   What stakeholder organizations (e.g., county commission; chamber of commerce; regional planning commission) will you jointly  deal with?  How will you decide which of  you will meet with the media and take major speaking engagements?  Etc.

You’ll CEO portfolio obviously includes helping your board chair succeed in carrying out her responsibilities, and you’ll want to discuss this support role with your chair.  In addition to meeting for an hour to walk through the agenda before every regular board business meeting, discussing any critical issues in depth with your chair, you might want to consider whether to reinforce the chair’s role by adding a regular chair’s report to the board that you will draft.  Beefing up the chair’s role is an important way to cement your working relationship.  You can also enrich your chair’s role by arranging for the two of you attend governance workshops at state and national conferences, and adding board chair reports on such workshops at board meetings.

In the great majority of nonprofit and public organizations, the board chair receives little if any monetary compensation for the substantial time she regularly commits, typically no more than reimbursement for travel expenses.  However, as chief executive officer, you are in a position to provide your chair with substantial non-monetary compensation that will make your chair’s  governing role more satisfying while also helping to cement your working relationship.   The more forms of nonmonetary compensation you come up with, the more clearly you will communicate that you really are committed to making your chair’s governing experience richer and more satisfying – that you “care enough to send the very best,” so to speak – and you will inevitably strengthen your bond with this preeminent CEO stakeholder.  Much of the non-monetary compensation you offer your chair will be simple, just-do-it stuff:  arranging speaking engagements; helping your chair secure a seat on another board that interests her; drafting the chair’s regular report at board meetings; featuring your chair in your organization’s monthly newsletter; and the like.  However, many truly board-savvy chief executives I’ve worked with over the years have engaged their chairs in leading complex organizational initiatives involving high-stakes impacts.  If you ensure the chair succeeds in this more demanding leadership role, I guarantee a robust return on your investment of time and energy in supporting the chair.

I’ll close with a real-life example, relating to the superintendent of schools whose very positive mindset was described above.  While I was still in a coaching relationship with this CEO, he and the other member of this high-functioning strategic governing team, his board president, worked hand-in-hand to bring off a stunningly successful board capability building initiative.  They spent hours coming up with the design of the initiative, which was overseen by a governance improvement task force chaired by the board president and consisting of the superintendent and two other board members.  My superintendent client made sure the board president was meticulously prepared  to chair each of the task force meetings, drafted the task force report to the board, and reviewed it line by line with his president, who transmitted the draft to the other members of the task force.  A key element of the design this strategic governing team came up with was to engage the board president/task force chair and other board members on the task force in presenting the governance improvement recommendations in a special work session involving all board and cabinet members.  Talking with the board president and superintendent after the board had voted unanimously to implement the recommended governance improvements, I could see that the board president was ecstatic about the results of the initiative and her pride and satisfaction were palpable.  This was a relationship sealant if there ever was one.

About the Author: Doug Eadie

President & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc., Doug Eadie assists CEOs in building rock solid partnerships with their boards.

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