I’m working on a new book about “insidious foes” of a close, positive, and productive board-CEO working relationship. The foes are erroneous 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.
An insidious foe that came immediately to mind when I was brainstorming my initial list was the erroneous assumption that organizational performance essentially determines the health of the board-CEO working relationship. On the surface, this assumption appears to make the best of sense, doesn’t it? If a transit authority is operationally sound, is meeting or exceeding most if not all of its performance targets and isn’t encountering any really serious performance shortfalls, then the board’s got to be happy with its CEO’s performance, right? And if the board’s happy with the CEO’s performance, the board-CEO relationship is fundamentally solid, correct?
Well, you’d think so, but as I’ve said over and over again in my CEO workshops over the years, for every CEO I’ve seen lose her job because of serious organizational performance shortfalls, I’ve seen five sent packing because of purely relationship problems, even while the organization is humming along like a well-oiled machine. A few years ago I interviewed the board members of a transit authority one-on-one in preparation for a board-CEO retreat. The situation was so positive that I assumed I’d find that the board’s relationship with the CEO was rock-solid. The system was financially sound – having passed a sales tax increase the year before; operational performance had improved across the board; and rider complaints had dramatically decreased over the past couple of years. But I was wrong – very, very wrong. To a person, the board members I interviewed assessed their relationship with the CEO as in serious trouble. Looking over my notes from those interviews, I see comments like: “He doesn’t keep us in the information loop,” “He gets really defensive when we raise tough questions.” “His style is aloof and guarded.” You get the drift.
The bad news is that this relationship was in serious jeopardy despite stellar organizational performance. The good news is we were able to save the relationship by talking through the interpersonal issues during the retreat. One of the most important outcomes of our day together was agreement on the steps that needed to be taken to shore up this CEO’s relationship with his board members. And you can be sure that the CEO came out of the session knowing that managing the interpersonal dimension of his relationship with the board had to be one of his top priorities. He was keenly aware that even outstanding system performance couldn’t – alone – ensure a healthy relationship.
I welcome readers’ comments about dangerous insidious assumptions they’ve grappled with up to now in their careers.