“But won’t I be inviting my board members into my business and leaving myself open to the kind of micro-management that can really disrupt my work?” This is what I heard from the GM of a mid-size transportation authority during our recent discussion over lunch of the process her board might use to assess her work. We’d agreed that a well-designed annual GM evaluation process was one of the most important vehicles for keeping her working relationship with the board healthy. And we’d also agreed that an objective evaluation process should heavily focus on the authority’s overall performance in terms of achieving measurable targets set through the annual operational planning/budget development process. For example: the three new stations under construction would be in operation as planned by April 30; rider complaints would decrease by 35 percent over the course of the year; the voters would approve the half-cent sales tax increase in the November election. Etc.
The rub – and her question about potentially inviting micro-management – came when I suggested that she consider recommending to her board’s governance committee that the CEO evaluation process consist of two tiers. The traditional tier would involve assessing the authority’s overall operating performance. The new second tier would involve – in a more personal, parallel process – evaluating the CEO’s success in achieving a set of “CEO-centric” targets that she would annually negotiate with her board. The targets would relate to such CEO performance areas as external relations (for example, repairing the frayed relationship with the county commissioners), internal leadership (for example, significantly strengthening employee morale), and governance (for example, bringing off a productive board-executive team strategic planning retreat).
I pointed out that many public and nonprofit CEOs I’d worked with over the years had significantly strengthened the partnership with their boards by adding this second, CEO-centric tier to the annual evaluation process. For one thing, the CEO’s willingness to seek board members’ input on the use of his or her own time in achieving particular chief executive outcomes has proved to be a sure-fire way for the CEO to signal that she’s secure, in command of her job, and not the least bit threatened by deeper board involvement in assessing her performance. For another, this kind of collaboration has flattered board members by soliciting their input in an area traditionally off-limits, while enabling them to get to know their CEO at a much deeper level. And adding the CEO-centric tier to the evaluation process has proved to be a reliable way to surface – and address – relationship issues that wouldn’t normally come up in the traditional, organization-side operational planning/budget preparation process.
The GM’s concern about inviting board micro-management almost certainly had to do with one of those insidious foes that I talked about in my April 8 post at this blog. You’ll recall that the post defines insidious foes as “assumptions that can do serious damage to the relationship. A foe is ‘insidious’ if it isn’t obviously dangerous. In fact, many ‘insidious foes’ are especially dangerous because they’re nuggets of conventional wisdom that appear to make good sense and don’t seem at all threatening at first blush.”
In this case the insidious foe was the erroneous assumption that there should be a firewall separating the board’s governing work from the CEO’s process of setting his own leadership priorities and allocating his own time to achieving those priorities. Although the firewall might sound sensible at first blush, long experience has proved that active board-CEO collaboration – rather than maintaining distance – is the most reliable path to a healthier board-CEO working relationship.
Bottom line: Be open to new approaches that might generate a handsome payoff, and avoid getting trapped by erroneous conventional wisdom that can actually damage your relationship with your board even if it seems plausible at first.