Caveat Emptor: an Axiom All Really Board-Savvy CEOs Take to Heart

To judge from participants’ questions during and after the workshop that I presented on September 25 at the American Public Transportation Association Annual Meeting in Nashville, one of the concepts I discussed that struck a real chord was that “board-savvy” CEOs are a preeminent key to building a solid board-CEO partnership that can withstand the inevitable stresses and strains at the top of every organization.   And one characteristic of board-savvy CEOs that sparked the most discussion during our workshop was the ability to spot dubious assumptions about the rapidly changing field of public/nonprofit governance that we called “insidious foes” of the board-CEO working relationship.  What makes these erroneous assumptions so   “insidious” is that they can sound plausible at first blush.  What makes them  “foes” is that they can seriously damage the precious but always fragile partnership between the CEO and his/her board.

A few years ago I saw the harm that uncritical acceptance of one of these erroneous assumptions can cause.  I was retained to work with a transit board and its CEO to repair – if possible – a dangerously frayed working relationship.  Over the course of a half-day together early in the engagement, the CEO and I identified a culprit at the heart of the problem with his board:  the erroneous assumption that since the authority was humming along quite nicely, operationally speaking – meeting operational performance targets, growing ridership, and getting rave reviews from riders and other key community stakeholders – the board-CEO partnership would automatically be solid.   Uncritically accepting this stunningly wrong-headed assumption, the CEO had taken his eye off a ball that all really board-savvy CEOs pay close attention to:  designing processes for engaging board members creatively in shaping critical governing “products” so that they feel like satisfied owners of their governing work.

For example, every really board-savvy CEO I work with knows that, even if everything is going swimmingly, merely sending the board a finished budget document to thumb through will turn board members into disengaged critics rather than owners of this critical governing “product.”  Board-savvy CEOs know enough to take the trouble – often  working with the board’s planning committee – to map out practical ways board members can participate in shaping the budget document.  For example, many boards I’ve worked with participate in a work session early in the budget preparation process, focused on identifying critical operational issues deserving attention in the budget document.  Turning board members into owners – rather than a disengaged audience for staff-produced documents – is arguably the strongest glue for cementing the board-CEO partnership.

Long experience has taught me that “caveat emptor” – “Let the buyer beware” in Latin – is an axiom that all really board-savvy CEOs take very seriously.  They aren’t about to be sabotaged by dangerous advice and counsel just because it sounds plausible or, as often happens, is recommended by one self-styled governance guru or another.  Board-savvy CEOs take the trouble to become so knowledgeable about the rapidly evolving field of transit governance that they are experts at spotting these insidious foes before they can do serious damage to their partnership with the board.