The CEO of an organization we’ve been working with recently resigned. Unfortunately, a good deal of finger pointing followed. Some suggested a lack of strategic focus. Others questioned her leadership qualities. And there was the inevitable discussion of “fit” or “chemistry.”
This outcome ultimately came down to the relationship between the CEO and the board. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen this set of circumstances. In fact, a member of our team has resisted taking on a chief staff position for this very reason—because the relationship between a CEO and the board can either make or break effective organizational leadership. As such, we spend a great deal of our time at Quantum Governance talking about the importance of building a constructive partnership between the CEO and the board. But what does that really mean?
We can start with the basic definition of these words. Constructive, as defined by the Oxford Dictionaries, is “serving a useful purpose; tending to build up.” Partnership refers to “taking part in an undertaking with another or others, especially in a business or company with shared risks and profits.” There’s a lot of meaning embedded in those definitions, but let’s just call out a few of the most important words: “useful purpose,” “tending to build up,” “undertaking with another” and “shared.”
When we ask board members what their most important role is vis-à-vis their CEO, a common response is “to hire and fire.” That’s a very limited view of the relationship. Yes, recruiting and dismissing the CEO are formal powers vested in a board. And, yes, these decisions are among the most important a board typically makes. But these formal powers do not speak to the quality of the relationship, whether it is constructive and how it functions as a partnership between the board and the CEO. Yet, therein lies the real key to leadership success in the vast majority of credit unions.
The constructive partnership model is not a luxury but a necessity. Both the board and the CEO are needed at the table. There are times when the board must firmly lead, as when setting overarching credit union policy, for example. And there are times when it makes sense for the board to get out of the way and let the CEO and his or her management team do what they do best—run the day-to-day operations of the credit union.
But there are very real instances where you both need to work—and here’s that term again—in constructive partnership. For example, who sets the strategic vision for the credit union—the board or the CEO? Or do you do it together, through dialogue and in discussion? Would your board hold a strategic planning session without your CEO? Would your CEO put a new five-year strategic plan in place without the board? Certainly not.
We have seen instances in which credit unions have been largely driven by the board. In these situations, the CEO is often frustrated and describes feeling like “my hands are tied.” There is a fair amount of turnover at the senior levels of these organizations. On the other side of the coin, in organizations where the CEO is firmly in charge and forges forward without board input, directors are disengaged and describe feeling like a rubber stamp, following the whim and will of the CEO and his or her management team.
Neither extreme benefits the credit union.
All this talk of constructive partnership does not imply that the board should not address CEO performance issues. That is a key board responsibility—and a process that may require more attention at many credit unions: Nearly two-thirds of all board members we’ve surveyed wouldn’t describe their method of assessing their CEO’s performance as very effective. Ultimately, one of the most important roles you play as a director is to find a way to support and hold your CEO accountable, joining him or her in the undertaking the leadership of your credit union in genuine constructive partnership, sharing the responsibility to deliver on the expectations of your members in helping them fulfill their financial life dreams.
Michael Daigneault, CCD, is CEO at Quantum Governance L3C and has more than 30 years of experience in the field of governance, management, strategy, planning and facilitation. Daigneault has served as an executive in residence at the Rotman School of Business program for credit union leaders focused on credit union governance.
Jennie Boden serves as managing director of strategic relationships and a senior consultant with Quantum Governance. She has more than 20 years of experience in the national nonprofit sector and served as the chief staff officer for two nonprofits before coming to Quantum Governance.