The following two true tales of woe feature chief executives who weren’t wearing one of their most critical CEO hats: Board Relationship Manager-in-Chief.
“I can’t remember the last time I spent a one-on-one hour with Hank,” one of the members of a fifteen-seat transit authority board confided in an interview I was conducting in preparation for a two-day governance improvement retreat I’d been retained to design and facilitate. She was responding to my asking her to assess the health of the authority’s board-CEO working relationship. She went on to say that she doubted that Hank, the CEO, really valued her work on the board to which, she estimated, she was devoting at least ten hours a month. Similar comments in four or five other board member interviews red-flagged the issue of Hank’s inattention to individual board members, and the breakout group assigned to explore the board-CEO working relationship in the retreat identified the lack of one-on-one CEO attention to board members as one of the top five issues meriting serious, immediate attention because of its negative impact on board members’ morale.
Chatting with a member of the board of a countywide nonprofit economic development corporation before the monthly meeting of the board’s strategic and operational planning committee five months ago, I got an earful about the CEO’s neglecting to involve him in a recent meeting with the president of the local community college to put the final touches on an innovative workforce development initiative the two institutions were jointly launching. “How could he (the CEO) forget that I was the most vocal supporter of the initiative on the strategic and operational planning committee, indeed, the primary reason why the motion to work with the college in co-sponsoring the initiative passed unanimously.” He was seething, and I could see why; in his place, I’d be irate.
The two CEOs featured in these true tales of woe for some reason had taken off their Board Relationship Manager-in-Chief hat and consequently jeopardized their working relationship with members of their governing boards – their preeminent stakeholder. As it turned out, these missteps didn’t prove fatal to the board-CEO partnership in either of the organizations, but experience has taught that it wouldn’t have taken many more similar missteps to cause serious, even irreparable, damage to a truly high-stakes relationship, at the likely cost of their jobs. I know. I’ve seen it happen more than once.
Our September 9 post at this blog, “Forge an Especially Close Partnership With Your Board Chair,” offers detailed guidance to public/nonprofit organization chief executives in fashioning productive and enduring working partnerships with the top-ranking board member. Of course, it would be impossible for a chief executive to invest the same time and energy in developing personal relationships with all other board members, but over the years I’ve seen really board-savvy chief executives make significant progress on this front. The following strategies have served nonprofit/public CEOs well in building relationships with individual members of their governing boards – at a reasonable cost in terms of time and effort.
- Arguably the most powerful, highest-impact strategy is for the CEO to build productive relationships with the board members who chair her board’s standing committees, primarily by helping to ensure their success in leading standing committee deliberations. Many of my CEO clients, for example, make a point of meeting in-person with each of their board’s standing committee chairs a couple of weeks before every committee meeting to go over the agenda and discuss how particular issues might best be handled in the meeting. And clients of mine who systematically, regularly rotate standing committee chairs – annually or biannually – can relatively quickly expand their CEO’s ties with individual board members.
- As soon as a new CEO takes the helm of an organization, she should schedule one-on-one meetings with every board member, devoting at least an hour to getting to know each of her board members by asking questions and listening carefully: relating to board members’ personal and professional backgrounds, their professional interests, the issues closest to their heart, the impact they envision having through their governing work, etc. How fast this can be accomplished necessarily depends on board size, but such in-depth get-acquainted meetings have proved to be powerful relationship builders. This critical process is never-ending, of course, since new board members are continually being added.
- In addition to the in-depth get-acquainted meetings with board members, CEOs are well-advised to schedule regular one-on-one check-ins with every one of their board members, quarterly or semi-annually, depending on the board’s size. The objective is to provide board members with the opportunity to share concerns and problems relating to their board service and issues they believe their CEO should pay attention to.
- Productive relationship building strategies that can be handled directly by staff overseen by the CEO include adding board members’ photos and biographies to an organization’s web site and publishing interviews with board members in the organization’s newsletter. By the way, I always cringe when I come across a web site with the pictures and bios of executive team members and only a name/title listing of board members: a perfect example of missing a simple, cheap opportunity to pay attention to the CEO’s highest-stakes stakeholder.
All of the relationship building strategies I’ve described above in my experience send a clear message to board members from their CEO: I really care about you and appreciate your work on the board; I don’t take you for granted; I am committed to helping you become an affective board member who has a satisfying governing experience. And the CEO who makes a sincere effort to translate this message into actual practice builds a line of credit with the board that he can draw on when a crisis threatens his partnership with the board.