The special board work session had been scheduled to consider a key recommendation coming out of the daylong board-CEO-executive team governance retreat three weeks earlier: replacing the board’s dysfunctional silo committees (e.g., paratransit services) with committees aligned with the board’s broad governing functions (e.g., strategic and operational planning). Not long into the session, the CEO realized that her preparation had been fatally flawed. When five particularly obstreperous board members launched a full-bore attack on the recommended structure, the CEO expected the board chair to join her in beating back the attack. Alas, he sat back quietly, leaving her alone at the rostrum. And worse, he signaled clearly that he wasn’t in her corner by chiming in with some skeptical questions about the new structure. Predictably, the re-structuring initiative was doomed.
I heard this true story in my first one-on-one coaching session with this CEO several weeks after the debacle. It wasn’t all bad news. The silver lining, as this CEO recounted, was that she’d learned a valuable lesson – the hard way, by failing. She now understood that she’d had a real choice. She could have made a serious effort to transform the board chair into her preeminent ally and champion for high-stakes chief executive leadership initiatives. Instead, she chose to pay a steep price in terms of failing to advance the critical board development agenda.
Over the course of the following three coaching sessions, I shared with this CEO five important strategies that long experience had taught me she could employ to turn her current and future board chairs into close partners.
#1 Start with the right mindset.
From the get-go see your board chair as your preeminent stakeholder with whom you must build a close working relationship if you intend to be a high-impact chief executive officer of your authority. Keeping a wary distance would be a dumb-dumb strategy.
#2 Get to know your board chair as well as you can as soon as you can.
Your partnership building strategy is far likelier to pay off handsomely if it’s based on an in-depth understanding of your potential partner, in terms of her decision making style, the goals she hopes to achieve as chair, her long-term professional aspirations, her leadership strengths and weaknesses, etc.
#3 Do whatever you can to help your board chair succeed as “CEO” of the board.
This strategy will pay off in two ways. First, by succeeding at the helm of the board, your chair will be a more influential partner for you. Second, she will feel indebted to you for helping her succeed in meeting a stiff leadership challenge.
#4 Provide your board chair with non-monetary compensation.
Two primary forms of non-monetary compensation that you, as CEO, can deliver to your board chair are intense ego satisfaction and assistance in realizing professional aspirations. For example, you can ensure that your chair is recognized publicly for her leadership labors, you can draft reports to the board that your chair can deliver early in every board meeting, and you can nominate your board chair for appointment to one or more other boards in the community she is really interested in joining.
#5 And co-lead governance improvement initiatives with your board chair.
Your board chair is far likelier to be an effective champion for governance improvement initiatives such as putting an updated board committee structure in place if she owns the initiatives, and ownership is the result of active engagement in developing and implementing initiatives. For example, your board chair might chair the governance task force that you’re providing executive support to in coming up with governance improvement recommendations.