When I walked in Rich’s office for our weekly project review meeting, I found him slumped at his desk looking distraught. When I asked him what’d happened, he just said “take a look,” handing me a form. It was the annual performance evaluation his board had performed a couple of days ago. Scanning the document, I couldn’t fathom his distress since his scores were uniformly high – in fact, superb. That is, until I reached the bottom and saw the conclusion, which said in so many words, “You do a great job, but we find working with you impossible.” He was gone a month later.
I’ve recounted this tale of woe a number of times over the years, most recently at a board-CEO work session a couple of weeks ago, to make a very important point. To put it crudely, “It’s the relationship, stupid!” As I told participants at this most recent board-CEO work session, over the course of my thirty-plus years of work with hundreds of public/nonprofit boards and their CEOs, for every chief executive I’ve seen get into trouble with her board because of a serious performance shortfall – relating to her own or her organization’s performance – I’ve probably encountered 15 whose nemesis was a relationship issue.
A case in point. A few months ago, conducting one-on-one telephone interviews with board members in preparation for an upcoming daylong retreat, I learned that seven of the nine board members felt their relationship with the CEO was perilously close to being fatally frayed. Why? Although they used different words to characterize the dire situation, their answers all boiled down to the fact they felt the CEO didn’t care enough to build a close working relationship with them as individuals. All seven mentioned the fact that, despite a solemn pledge from the CEO, he hadn’t held the promised one-on-one meetings with any of the seven for the past six months or so. By the way, when I mentioned the issue in my de-briefing with the CEO, he said he was “totally surprised” by their alienation. A dramatic example of poor communication if there ever was one!
Long experience has taught me that situations like the ones I’ve described can be avoided by taking three simple steps that fall well short of rocket science.
- First, make sure your authority’s board has a standing committee – typically called “governance” or “ board operations” – headed by the board chair and often consisting of the other standing committee chairs, that is explicitly responsible, among other things, for the board-CEO working relationship.
- Second, make sure that an hour or so is reserved on the committee agenda every couple of months – or at the least quarterly – for a detailed discussion of the health of the board-CEO relationship. The focus should be on identifying relationship issues and reaching agreement on remedies.
- And, third, especially for the CEOs reading this, follow through religiously on the remedies you’ve agreed to with the committee. If it’s bi-monthly one-on-one meetings with every board member, you make sure they take place – no fail, or risk the consequences.
Maintaining a healthy partnership with the board ought to be at the top of every transit CEO’s list, as Dave Stackrow and I say in our book Building a Solid Board-CEO Partnership. Check out Chapter Three for practical, tested guidance on relationship building.