When it comes to the chief executive’s job satisfaction, the board chair matters


In one of my early blog postings in this series, “The Board Chair’s Job Description,” I made the point that it is one of the board chair’s key responsibilities to “manage the board’s partnership and employment relationship with the chief executive.” While managing the “employment relationship” is an essential administrative task, it is just as important to manage the “partnership.”

When it comes to the chief executive’s job satisfaction, how the board chair manages this essential partnership really does matter. As a follow-up to their report, Daring to Lead 2011 (a national study of over 3,000 executive directors), Rick Moyers and Maria Cornelius reported that those executive directors who characterized their relationships with their board chairs as “exceptional” were more positive about their jobs, felt less isolated, felt less burned out, and experienced higher job satisfaction overall than their colleagues who described their relationships with their board chairs as “merely functional.”

Not too surprisingly, they also found that those chief executives who had an “exceptional” relationship with their board chair were also more likely to be satisfied with board performance—17% more were “very satisfied” with board performance overall.

So, if the quality of this board chair and chief executive relationship is so important, what are the elements to which the board chair needs to pay attention, and how do they link to the need to manage the employment relationship too?

• Communication is the essential ingredient – As with any relationship you value, you need to actively work to ensure that there is good, open communication. Be purposeful about this. Talk with the chief executive about the how, what and when of communicating with each other. If you know (or have been told) that communication is not your strong suit, make it a point to schedule times to check-in or meet. Poor communication is almost always the crux of the problem when board chair and chief executive relationships break down.

• Don’t try to do the chief executive’s job – It is not unusual for the board and the chief executive to feel a bit of friction along the border that defines their unique roles. However, it is when the board chair (or other board members) crosses the line into day-to-day administration or attempts to manage the staff that real trouble begins. Understanding and honoring the unique roles of the board and the chief executive is essential.

• Support ongoing leadership development and training – It is unlikely that any new, or even long-time, chief executive will have a high level of proficiency in all of the skills that are required to lead your organization. Make sure there is money in the budget and a board expectation that the chief executive will continue to seek learning opportunities that will build his or her leadership capabilities.

• Seek coaching when needed – In the corporate world, boards don’t hesitate to provide promising leaders with executive coaching to support their growth and development (and to protect the investment they’ve made in these leaders). If your chief executive is struggling, or if you are struggling as the board chair, why not invest in some coaching?

• Conduct an annual performance review – This is one of the essential responsibilities of the board chair. If you don’t make this happen, no one else will. Your chief executive deserves, at least on an annual basis, to know where he or she stands, what is going well, and where there are opportunities for improvement. Similarly, there should be an annual review of the chief executive’s compensation.

• Manage expectations – Relationships are often damaged or fall apart because one person does not live-up to the expectations of the other. Too often, however, expectations are unclear, and the offending party never realized that there was an expectation. Begin the board chair and chief executive relationship by getting clear about your expectations for each other, and then be deliberate about checking-in to see how you each are doing in meeting them.

• Be in the chief executive’s “corner” – The chief executive needs to know that you are standing behind him or her, that you are working together as a team for the good of the organization, that you’ll protect the chief executive against unwarranted attacks, and that you will always be fair in dealing with him or her. At the same time, it is important to be clear that the good of the organization will always comes first.

• Don’t take the relationship for granted – Over time, it is easy to become complacent—we can assume that if we are happy with the chief executive and how things are going, she must be happy too. Don’t stop paying attention to the details of maintaining the relationship, or you may just wake-up someday and find that you are chairing a search process.

• Don’t forget that the chief executive is an employee – It is easy to lose track of the reality that the board is the employer and the chief executive is the employee. As warm and comfortable as your relationship might be, don’t forget that the board is responsible for hiring, supervising (and even firing) the chief executive, and as board chair, you are out front. Make sure you are doing all the things that good employers do to follow appropriate employment practices and protect yourself, the board, and the organization.

We know that this relationship is so very important, yet we too often fail to invest in it. The down-side of a failed board chair and chief executive relationship can be devastating, yet with just a little time and attention, you have the ability to make the relationship “exceptional.” Make the investment!

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected].