Both the Chair of a board and the CEO of an organization have great leadership responsibilities. As I shared in my blog “Be a Great Board Chair in 10 Steps,” it is important for all board members to be clear about their respective roles, notably the CEO and the Chair, and for these two individuals to work together—not against each other.
Over the years, in my role as a trusted confidante to boards and as a CEO backer, much of my time has been spent listening to and advising CEOs about the dynamics challenges they have with their boards, specifically with their Chairs and vice-versa. While many Chairs and CEOs have good relationships, many struggle with creating an empowering partnership.
The dynamics and aspects of this relationship are not different than other relationships. Two people are involved, and both need to commit the time to work at the basics of a strong partnership that I categorize under four pillars: trust, respect, communication and collaboration.
PILLAR #1 – Trust
If trust lacks from either party, the relationship will be flawed. To trust each other, you must make time to learn about each other—how you both think, how you process information, how you are accountable for your roles and responsibilities, what is clearly acceptable and what is not acceptable, and how you prefer to address issues that surface. It is important to state your expectations about exchanges with management, handling disruptive behavior from either side and being accessible to each other. Trust is established by being transparent with each other, and it grows from not making assumptions and checking in with one another regularly. Establishing trust is both an act of maturity and of reciprocity.
PILLAR #2 – Respect
Respect is essentially appreciating the value of each other’s accomplishments, the way you lead in your respective roles, how you conduct yourselves in this relationship and how you treat each other and treat management. An understanding of your mutual standards and a commitment to honesty and cordiality are keys to an effective working relationship. If you find yourself in a tenuous relationship with your counterpart, at least having respect enough not to air your disagreements in front of other board members will allow you to function effectively as partners in leadership.
PILLAR # 3 – Communication
Openly share your expectations and address issues in a timely fashion. These two apparently simple things are not easy, but they are a requirement in a healthy relationship. For example, when the Chair is not satisfied with the CEO, it is the Chair’s responsibility to confront the CEO in a constructive manner about the issues, and vice-versa. You need to be able to talk about misunderstandings, disappointments and fall-out without becoming defensive or taking things personally. Committing to an open dialogue will ensure that neither of you fall into the trap of airing grievances with others to the detriment of your relationship and your roles.
Reach out to each other and engage in communicating. Through my board leadership effectiveness assignments, Chairs and CEOs have told me that they wish they could take the time to meet over breakfast to get to know each other and to take the time to communicate. While both have that desire, it is too common for neither to ask the other for this meeting, both assuming that the other might be too busy, not be interested or find it unimportant. These assumptions can’t be made. Reach out and engage.
PILLAR #4 – Collaboration
Bring the best out in each other, being clear on how to effectively work together and collaborating on the pluses and the minuses.
Relationships are not perfect, and no matter how great they are, there is always room for improvement. Be clear about what works, and bring the best out of each other, knowing how to capitalize on each other’s strengths for bettering the effectiveness of the board and the leadership of the organization. Be clear about what doesn’t work, and strive to complement each other, helping each other in the areas where you are vulnerable or lacking skills. Seek to be in alignment about where you disagree and where you coalesce.
If any of the four pillars appear difficult or nearly impossible to establish, both should agree to be candid and to seek the support of an objective 3rd party who will be impartial and can foster a more effective dialog between the two of you and leading to a more empowering partnership.
It is work and it is rewarding.