I’ve lost count of the horror stories CEOs have told me in our one-on-one coaching sessions – about working with their first board after reaching the top spot. To call working with the board during that first year an ordeal by fire would be an understatement for many, if not most, transportation CEOs. This is really unfortunate since the board is without question the CEO’s preeminent stakeholder: who holds the purse strings; whose backing for CEO initiatives is essential; whose opposition can seriously diminish the CEO’s credibility; and who, ultimately, can end the CEO’s tenure.
Why do transit executives all too often reach the top spot in their authority unprepared to build a really solid working relationship with the board? For one thing, it’s the rare CEO who’s able to become sufficiently “board-savvy” by climbing the executive ladder on her way to the top. For another, as I’ve learned quizzing workshop participants over the years, few, if any, transit executives have encountered a graduate school course dealing in detail with the work of governing boards and the board-CEO partnership. And, sad to say, the so-called “field” of public and nonprofit governance isn’t really a full-fledged field with universally accepted principles and best practices; rather, there’s tremendous debate about principles and practices, and plenty of bad information floating around. This means that self-education – by reading and attending workshops – is likely to fall well short of preparing an executive to build a solid partnership with his first board.
This blog has addressed the need of CEO-aspirants for practical information about board-CEO partnership building, most notably in the February 3, 2016 post featuring a podcast by CEOs Carm Basile (Albany) and Steve Bland (Nashville): http://boardsavvytransitceo.com/carm-basile-and-steve-bland-on-getting-ready-to-work-with-a-board/. Drawing on real-life experience – my own and of leaders like Carm and Steve – here are three practical strategies that I’d recommend to new CEOs who aspire to survive and thrive with their board:
- Pay special attention early in your new tenure to helping your board become a highly effective governing body, wearing what I call in my book The Board-Savvy CEO the “Chief Board Capacity Builder” hat: clarifying the board’s governing functions; updating the board’s governing structure; and mapping out processes for engaging board members meaningfully in key governing processes like strategic planning and budgeting. Experience has proved that the members of well-developed boards doing a good job of governing make for better partners.
- Meticulously manage your working relationship with the board, focusing on the human dimension of the partnership: communicating frequently with the board; getting to know individual board members; and providing board members with “nonmonetary compensation,” such as recognition, attendance at conferences, and the opportunity to represent your authority in external forums.
- And be a super-cautious consumer of governance wisdom so that you don’t become the unwitting victim of bad advice (for example, the notion that stellar system performance will, alone, be sufficient to keep the board-CEO partnership healthy).
We’ll be looking at other “tricks of the board-CEO partnership building trade” in future blogs. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear from you about how you dealt with your first board when you reached the top.