Keeping the board-CEO/GM working relationship on an even keel and healthy over the long run is a major challenge. Just the fact that strong-willed people with robust egos have to be melded into enough of a team to do the extremely complex and demanding work of governing a transportation authority is challenging enough, but other factors help to make the board-CEO/GM partnership inherently fragile and prone to erode quickly if not diligently managed. For one thing, the high-pressure atmosphere at the top of a transportation authority, where high-stakes and often tremendously thorny issues are addressed – frequently with intense public scrutiny – tends to fray the board-CEO/GM partnership. And interpersonal dynamics can take a real toll. For example, the members of boards that, like those of transportation authorities, are appointed by third parties, such as the mayor or chair of the county commission, are often more beholden to constituencies than to the board itself and notoriously difficult to meld into a cohesive governing team.
Board-savvy CEOs/GMs well know that they’ve got to take the lead in meeting the board-CEO/GM relationship challenge. It might theoretically be a shared responsibility, but the reality is that being unpaid volunteers who have enough of a challenge mustering the time and energy to do a bang-up governing job, board members can’t be expected to take the lead in managing the working relationship with their CEO/GM. The great majority of board members I’ve worked with over the years have recognized that keeping the board-CEO/GM partnership healthy is a high priority, and they’ve been willing to serve on a committee charged with overseeing the partnership, but they typically expect the CEO/GM to play the role of what I call the Chief Governing Relationship Manager.
To be sure, the average transportation board member would probably lose some sleep over a souring relationship, knowing that it would negatively impact both governance and organizational performance. But they’d expect the CEO/GM to take the lead in figuring out exactly what the relationship problems are and to take the initiative in fixing them, and they’d be highly unlikely to blame themselves for a failed relationship. As board-savvy CEOs/GMs well know, it’s the CEO/GM who inevitably takes the blame for relationship problems, and if the board-CEO/GM partnership breaks down completely, the board will fire the CEO/GM, not itself.
Our next post at www.boardsavvytransitceo.com will feature a podcast by two really board-savvy CEOs/GMs, STA’s Susan Meyer and DART’s Gary Thomas, talking about board-CEO/GM communication and interaction guidelines as a key component of relationship building.