The board chair and the chief executive need to work as partners. The success that you each have separately and together can hinge upon the success of the relationship and the quality of support you provide each other. The best board chair and chief executive relationships are those where the two work together as a team to help the organization achieve its goals. These successful relationships are built upon mutual respect and a commitment to helping each other achieve personal and organizational goals. When it works well, there is a feeling that, “We can accomplish anything.”
Working successfully as a team does not mean that you have to be best friends, however. Keep in mind that this is a professional relationship first and foremost. This should be a relationship built on mutual respect. If after completing your term as board chair you and the chief executive regard each other as friends, that is great, but that should not be your primary goal. Don’t lose track of the fact that this is not a relationship where both parties are equal; the board is the employer, and as board chair you are the point person in the employer and employee relationship.
As an important first step in effectively managing the board’s relationship with the chief executive, I strongly encourage you to have a meeting with the chief executive at least 4-6 weeks in advance of your first board meeting as chair—what I call the “how we work together” meeting.
Schedule the meeting to allow for plenty of time to talk, and don’t let other things intrude upon this meeting. In the same way that it sends the wrong signal to employees when you reschedule their evaluation meetings to fit your schedule (“something more important came up”), make this a priority, and let the chief executive know that you regard it as such. Tell him or her to put some thought into it in advance by saying, “I’m going to ask you to tell me what I can do to support you.”
Here are the agenda topics that I suggest you focus on during that meeting (not necessarily in this order):
• Your goals, my goals, our shared goals – this is a great opportunity to understand what the chief executive hopes to accomplish in the year ahead, to articulate your own goals as board chair, and to explore together the question, “What is it that we would like to say that we’ve accomplished by the time my term in office is over?”
• Expectations for each other – here you are describing what you expect from the chief executive and staff and then asking “what should you be able to expect from me?” A good follow-up question here is, “what can I do to help you be successful?”
• Getting the most from the board – talk openly about the steps that you both would like to take to improve how the board operates and governs. Some of your ideas will be easy to implement and others will need more time, but strategize together how you might address the work to be done.
• Communication – you may have addressed this under expectations, but make sure that you’ve talked about how best to communicate with each other, how much, how often, and what kind of information you feel it is essential to communicate. You may find that your needs and expectations could be quite different from each other. Be prepared to find a comfortable place in the middle.
• Evaluation – if you’ve talked about what you both want to achieve, it makes sense to also talk about how and when you’ll assess your progress. Consider scheduling a meeting three to six months down the road (and put it on the calendar now) to meet and talk about what is working and what is not. This is also a good time to check-in on the timeline for the chief executive’s annual evaluation and talk about what it will take to ensure that it all happens in a timely and appropriate manner (remember that you are the employer).
• Preparing for the first meeting – you want to set the right tone at your first board meeting as chair. Talk now about what kinds of things need to be accomplished before that meeting—new member orientation, committee assignments, etc.—and agree upon what role you expect to have in developing the agenda for board meetings and how and when you will make that happen.
At the start of this blog entry I said that the “board chair and the chief executive need to work as partners.” A meeting that allows plenty of time to thoughtfully address each of the items listed here will reinforce the importance of that partnership and will help to set the stage for a successful term as board chair. Don’t assume that you and the chief executive are already in-sync and ready to go. Make this meeting a priority.
For more board governance advice, explore the Starboard Leadership Consulting web site: www.starboardleadership.com, or contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407.