Good Governance: The Board and the CEO Should Play Doubles Tennis

a man and a woman playing doubles tennis
Michael G. Daigneault, CCD Photo
Quantum Governance L3C
Jennie Boden Photo
Quantum Governance L3C

3 minutes

The constructive partnership between directors and the chief executive is a lot like teammates on one side of the court.

If you’ve spent any amount of time with us folks at Quantum Governance—either at a large, general session at a CUES conference or in a private, retreat setting, you know that we talk a lot about the importance of the “constructive partnership” between the board and the CEO. 

We spend a key portion of our governance training covering this very issue—framing the dynamic balance of authority between the two and suggesting that a key to mutual success is that they focus on working together as “teammates.” 

What do we mean by that? 

Well, we often ask participants to picture the great tennis players Venus and Serena Williams playing together as a doubles tennis team. Yes, each should bring her unique abilities to the challenge, but that does not mean one sister should overwhelmingly dominate the play on their common side of the net. 

When out on the court playing a doubles tennis match, they cannot (in the moment) be focused on “Who is in charge? or “Who is the better tennis player?” No, they’re understandably focused on who is in the best position to return the next shot as it comes over the net. Indeed, they are hyper-focused on working together as a team to bring out the best in both of their abilities!

The same is true in the board-CEO relationship. There are roles and responsibilities that fall into the board’s side of the court (i.e., hiring the CEO). In the same vein, it should remain the CEO’s sole responsibility to hire his or her management team and staff. But what about when it comes to determining the strategic plan that will drive the future of the credit union? Doubles tennis best defines this part of the effort to be sure, with the board, CEO and management team working in constructive partnership to co-create the best strategic plan for their credit union and its members.

One of the key findings in our report “The State of Credit Union Governance, 2018, Five Data-Driven Recommendations for Future Success” was that this all-important team (the board and the CEO) frequently differ on their perceptions of governance. And that difference in perception is great, with little agreement on 84% of their responses on the vast majority of the survey’s key questions.

This finding led us to recently add a new question to our governance survey: How effective is the board at maintaining a good working relationship with the CEO?

On a scale of 0-4, the responses thus far have varied wildly, with one credit union scoring a perfect 4.0, and another scoring less than a 1.0. 

How would you rate your board’s relationship with your CEO? Consider all of the facets. Is your board appropriately staying out of the weeds? Are you working in constructive partnership in the areas that really count? Do you have a high level of trust with your CEO? Are you giving your CEO genuinely effective performance feedback? Is your board asking the hard questions that need to be asked, as you “trust but verify”? And is your CEO comfortable with your hard questions and in agreement with you in your collective understanding of the role and responsibilities of the Board? 

The law vests the ultimate authority and responsibility for the credit union in the board, Ram Charan put it this way in his book Boards that Lead, the real role of the board is to understand: 1) when to lead, 2) when to delegate and 3) when to partner with your CEO and his or her management team. Are these three areas crystal clear for you and for your CEO? 

If not, we fear that your score would be far from that perfect 4.0 on our new governance survey question, and this is likely one of the most important and critical governance challenges that your credit union must identify and overcome. 

Michael Daigneault, CCD, is the CEO of Quantum Governance L3C, Herndon, Virginia, CUES’ strategic provider for governance services. Daigneault has more than 30 years of experience in the field of governance, management, strategy, planning and facilitation, and served as an executive in residence at CUES Governance Leadership Institute™.

Jennie Boden serves as the firm’s managing director of strategic relationships and a senior consultant. She has more than 25 years of experience in the national nonprofit sector and served as the chief staff officer for two nonprofits before coming to Quantum Governance.
Quantum Governance provides credit unions, corporations, nonprofits, associations and governmental entities with strategic, cost-effective governance, ethics and management consulting, facilitation and evaluation. 

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