Relationship Hygiene Between the Board and CEO – Professional Growth Systems

Relationship Hygiene Between the Board and CEO

Hygiene? What prompted this? I recently spent a day with a board who had concurred with their CEO that the working relationship had deteriorated to a point that threatened the stability of leadership in an organization that had been prospering.

I went through the usual steps of trying to assess what the source of the problem might be:

  • What are you concerned about?
  • What changes are you wanting to make happen?
  • Is there agreement on the role of the board?
  • Was the board micro-managing?
  • Are there clear policies in place to avoid misunderstandings and upsets?
  • Is it the politics of power that is destabilizing the board-CEO relationship?

My diagnosis was that none of these were major contributors. Yes, there were instances of micro-management, but the board quickly copped a plea of guilty on that one.

So, what was the diagnosis? Simply a lack of meaningful communication. Rather than either side communicating concerns, the concerns were gunny sacked and came out in the annual evaluation of the CEO. A common problem.

What do I mean by “Relationship Hygiene”?

Readers who have spouses or significant others of long standing know that relationships take work. Misunderstandings abound. Tone of voice, facial expression, differing operating definitions of words all can lead to upsets. We tend to stuff our concerns and withhold some honest communications in the spirit of trying to get along and not create drama. The problem with that strategy is that these upsets are not forgotten. Instead they tend to accumulate and grow exponentially as we go forward until a boiling point is reached and a damaging exchange occurs that threatens to end the relationship.

This phenomenon is not isolated to personal relationships, it occurs at work as well, including, as in this case, the Board/CEO relationship. What is needed is a little “hygiene” – or communication practices that are instrumental in maintaining a strong, positive relationship.

My Prescription for Board/CEO Hygiene

Adopt the practice of conducting an executive session at the close of very meeting. Have all staff but the CEO exit the meeting room and open the floor for people, one at a time, to share what is on their mind as the meeting closes. Key questions to prompt discussion might include the following:

  • How did this meeting go?
  • How could it have gone better? What would you like to have had from your chair, your CEO, your fellow board members and yourself?
  • How is the CEO doing on the areas in which you asked for improvements during the last evaluation?
  • Is your trust in the CEO rising or falling? Why or why not?
  • What concerns do you have about the organization that weren’t addressed on the agenda?
  • What rumors or customer/stakeholder concerns are not being addressed?

The CEO should be asked to provide his perspective on these same questions. What did he want from the board that he didn’t get? What comments/actions upset him or her?

Clearing the air and having honest communication is what I call relationship hygiene. It is a preventive action to eliminate build up of concerns/resentment that ultimately can explode.

The other reason I recommend this is that if you don’t have an executive session as a standard item on the agenda, then when you do have one, shock waves race through the organization that the CEO or someone else is in trouble and there is political treachery afoot. This, in turn, leads to loss of morale and production.

So back to my client story. After going through the diagnostic checklist I listed above, we got into the specific concerns. Turns out that this group was in the top percentile in terms of best practices for governing boards. They were doing virtually everything right, had all the requisite tools for success. They just weren’t communicating.

We shall see whether my diagnosis and treatment plan is successful. However, I can say that with boards who have implemented this, I have seen huge benefit in terms of maintaining a productive board-CEO relationship.

Give this a try. Even if your working relationship now is just super. It will maintain your super condition and even lead to improvements. And let us know how it goes.