The Critical Board Chair-CEO Alliance

When the CEO of a national professional association began to talk with her board chair about the need for board capacity building, she realized she had a pretty rough row to hoe.  Her chair was preoccupied with his pet leadership target – putting in place a detailed strategy for international growth, as a way to dealing with slow and sure decline in both members and revenues on the domestic front.  And not only was he initially unconvinced that a board development initiative made sense at this point in time, he was keenly aware that three or four important board members were likely to oppose any capacity building effort, for purely selfish reasons:  fear of losing the influence they’d built up over the years.  The board-savvy CEO persevered, finally convincing her chair that a more fully developed governing board would be critical to successfully implementing an international expansion effort and that his being a vocal champion for board development would be essential to overcoming resistance.  So donning the change champion hat, the board chair appointed a governance task force charged to come up with recommendations to strengthen the board’s role and structure, and six months later the task force recommendations were adopted unanimously.  Of course, the board-savvy CEO worked closely with the chair in coming up with the right task force composition, drafted the chair’s charge to the task force, convinced the chair to head the task force, and ensured that it was well staffed.

When the board-savvy general manager (CEO) of the regional transit authority approached his board chair about the need for a better-designed process for board evaluation of his performance, suggesting that the board’s governance committee devote a couple of work sessions coming up with a new approach, he got the gut response he’d expected:  “If it ain’t broke, why bother trying to fix it? We’ve got plenty going on already.”    No one on the board was pressuring him to improve the process, the chair pointed out; in fact, everyone seemed pretty satisfied with the questionnaire they’d been using for a decade or so.  The GM didn’t press the point at first, instead opting to educate his chair over the next few weeks.  They were early in the new fiscal year, so there was time to re-design the process and actually use it at the end of the year.  So over the course of a series of breakfast meetings, the GM convinced his chair that the current process, involving a questionnaire that essentially measured board members’ opinions about the GM’s functional competence in areas like financial planning and supervision, was dangerously subjective, missing the key outcomes piece and leaving both the board and GM at a disadvantage.

The next steps were for the chair and GM to reach agreement on the outline of a more outcomes-focused process and on the chair’s playing the leading role in fleshing out the outline with the governance committee over the course of two work sessions, which the chair agreed to schedule.  Naturally, the chair suggested that the GM, being the CEO and having a big stake in the outcome, take the lead in the work sessions, but he came around when the GM pointed out that it’d take the chair’s influence to overcome the inevitable resistance from committee members who were pretty comfortable with the way evaluation had been done for as long as they’d been on the board.  As the GM expected, the board chair’s strong leadership did the trick, and the upgraded evaluation process was implemented during the current fiscal year.

I could share many more true stories of successful board chair-CEO collaboration, but the reader can easily see what board-savvy CEOs well know:  investing in the development of a rock-solid board chair-CEO working relationship can yield powerful organizational dividends.   In fact, I would suggest that one of the preeminent priorities of a truly board-savvy CEO is to transform her board chair into a strong governing partner, a reliable ally, and when needed, an ardent change champion.  The board chair makes an especially important partner for the CEO not only because of her formal authority as “CEO” of the governing board, but also the fact that board chairs are often major actors who wield tremendous influence  in their communities, including in the profession or industry an association represents.  I’ve seen board-savvy CEOs successfully employ five major strategies in building close and productive working relationships with their board chair:

  1. Reach agreement with the board chair on the fundamental division of labor with the CEO.
  2. Get to know the board chair really well.
  3. Actively help the board chair succeed in her formal governing role.
  4. Actively assist the board chair in having a richer, more satisfying experience beyond her formal leadership role.
  5. And never miss an opportunity to provide the board chair with ego satisfaction, often in little but important ways.

 

This blog is excerpted from my new book, The Board-Savvy CEO (www.theboardsavvyceo.com).

Doug Eadie