For CEO Eyes Only:  5 Critical Keys to Cementing the Partnership With Your Board

Dear chief executive colleagues, you’re well advised to make building and maintaining a close, positive, productive, and enduring partnership with your governing board one of your blue-chip priorities.  I don’t doubt that you’re aware of this, but a reminder seems in order since  the professional stakes for you are extraordinarily high.  The fact is, the evidence is in, and it’s overwhelming.  The chief executive officers of public and nonprofit organizations who succeed at the helm and enjoy above-average tenure at the top – be they superintendents of schools, transit authority general managers, the presidents of economic development corporations, etc. – do so in close partnership with their governing board.  Working as close partners, these extraordinary chief executives and their boards provide the leadership that enables their organizations to achieve strategic goals, meet operational targets, diversify and increase financial resources, and grow in public esteem.

I don’t underestimate how challenging taking the initiative in cementing your partnership with the board can be these days.  Complex, often divisive issues are bedeviling boards around the country.  Strident debate increasingly overpowers civil discourse.  A new breed of board member is appearing on the governance scene:  extremely demanding, expecting to make a difference now, not after several months of settling into their governing role.  These and other developments make partnership building a daunting task.  However, you have no choice but to take the lead on this front.  Experience has taught that boards can’t be expected to spearhead building a partnership with you. And if you fail to act, the likely price will be radically diminished effectiveness at the helm.

It occurred to me this morning, while preparing for my upcoming governance workshop for the Aspiring Superintendents Program of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, that senior executives aspiring to be chief executives will also find this and subsequent posts in this series on the board-CEO partnership useful in getting off on the right foot with their new board.  In my experience, newly minted CEOs more often than not take the helm ill-prepared to forge a close partnership with their board, leaving them seriously at risk during their first year or two in the C-suite.   Climbing the executive ladder on their way to the top, executives typically don’t become “board-savvy,” and they are highly unlikely to have encountered a really detailed and up-to-date graduate course on the board-CEO working relationship.

For the past forty-some years, I’ve closely observed at least a hundred chief executive officers of diverse nonprofit/public organizations who have built highly productive, lasting working relationships with their boards.  First, in my mid-twenties, as the chief operating officer, reporting directly to the CEO, of a large nonprofit service provider in Erie, Pennsylvania and then, in my early 30’s, as a vice president and chief of staff to the president of a 30,000-student, three-campus community college in Cleveland, Ohio.  Both of these executive positions early in my career included the board liaison function.  And since founding Doug Eadie & Company thirty years ago, I’ve closely observed a wide range of nonprofit/public CEOs and their boards in my capacity as a governance consultant and one-on-one CEO coach.

Based on my four decades of work with CEOs and their boards, I’ve identified the following five critical keys to chief executive success in forging a really solid working relationship with the board.  I’ll be taking a close look at one of these five keys in each of my next five posts at this blog. 

CEO Key #1: Make the governance function – and the board specifically – a top-tier CEO

This key involves:  seeing the chief executive as a hybrid position – part       board/part executive staff; taking explicit accountability for the governing effectiveness of your board; engaging actively – hands-on – in the governing arena; becoming a world-class governing guru; taking accountability for spearheading board capacity building.

CEO Key #2: Forge an especially close partnership with your board chair.

This key involves:  treating your board chair as a close governing partner; ensuring your chair’s success in leading board deliberations; tailoring communication to your chair’s preferred mode and style; providing your chair with rich non-monetary compensation; working out a mutually satisfactory division of labor for shared functions.

CEO Key #3: Cultivate an up-close, personal relationship with each of your board

This key involves:  getting to know board members well as individuals; understanding the governing issues at the top of board members’ minds; staying in close touch via one-on-one interaction; helping board members achieve  professional goals.

CEO Key #4: Make sure the board-CEO working relationship is meticulously managed.

This key involves:  making sure that management of the board-CEO relationship has a formal home in the governance structure; regularly identifying and addressing relationship issues; reaching agreement with the responsible committee on CEO-centric leadership goals; putting in place a well-designed process for board evaluation of CEO performance.

CEO Key #5: Take the lead in transforming board members into satisfied owners of their governing work.

This key involves:  spearheading the design of processes for meaningful board member engagement in major governing processes such as strategic planning and annual budget development; employing board committees as vehicles for satisfying engagement; making regular board business meetings more engaging; identifying and capitalizing on opportunities to provide ego satisfaction.

 Be on the lookout for the second post in this series, taking a close look at Key #1.

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