I’ll never forget walking into a transit authority’s board room several years ago. I found the board chair – a highly influential attorney – fuming. When I asked what was wrong, he handed me a clipping from the community affairs section of the local paper, saying “read this and you’ll see.” The piece was a glowing review of the authority’s new agreement with the local community college system – providing frequent, convenient bus service to students. I couldn’t see what the problem was until I got near the end of the piece, when I read a long quote from the CEO talking about the authority’s commitment to partnership building in the region and how he had personally devoted lots of time to launching the new partnership. You can guess whose name wasn’t mentioned in the piece: the board chair’s, of course.
The chair went on to tell me how much time he’d spent building a relationship with the college president, and how many meetings with the president he’d attended with the authority CEO as they’d worked out the details of the partnership. “Adding insult to injury,” the chair told me, the CEO hadn’t even invited him to sit in on the meeting he’d hosted in his office with the reporter who’d written the piece. This really un-board-savvy CEO had missed a great opportunity to provide his board chair with one of the most important forms of what I think of as nonmonetary compensation – public recognition. Worse, not only had this CEO failed to capitalize on an opportunity to further cement the working relationship with his chair, he’d managed to damage it severely.
Astute, really board-savvy transit CEOs are always on the alert for opportunities to “pay” their board chairs as a way to strengthen this extremely important partnership. For example, in addition to public recognition, the “paycheck” can include : helping their chair succeed in his role as leader of the board; getting the chair involved in an area she’s really interested in, such as transit-oriented economic development; and helping the chair sharpen certain leadership skills, such as public speaking. Of course, the only sure way to come up with the right “paychecks” is to get to know your board chair really well as early in her tenure as possible.
Providing your board chair with regular non-monetary paychecks is well worth the effort because of the stakes involved in this critical working relationship. Perhaps most important, your chair can help you achieve your chief executive leadership goals by serving a spear carrier in securing board support for your highest priority CEO initiatives. And your chair can also help you deal with critics on the board and in the wider community, standing by your side rather than passively sitting on the sidelines while you take all the heat.