Good Governance: The Concept of ‘Constructive Partnership’

diverse business people put hands together
Caitlin Curran Hatch Photo
Senior consultant
Quantum Governance L3C
Michael G. Daigneault, CCD Photo
Quantum Governance L3C

6 minutes

Collaboration, more than control, fuels today’s high-performing boards.

The Quantum Governance team has had the opportunity to work with a great many credit unions throughout the U.S. and Canada—often with the core objective of improving the working relationship between the board and the CEO (including the members of the senior management team that report directly to the CEO). Frequently we are asked, “Is there an approach towards credit union governance we should adopt to best achieve this vital goal?”

For most, we recommend adopting the framework of a “constructive partnership” between the board and the CEO/senior management team. One of our clients recently challenged us to define what we mean by a constructive partnership and put it in writing. This blog is the result of that thoughtful challenge.

Origins of the Concept of ‘Constructive Partnership’

The concept of a constructive partnership was first developed by Richard Chait, Ph.D., a nonprofit governance expert at Harvard University. In his book Governance as Leadership, Chait suggests the best way to frame the relationship between a board and CEO is by focusing primarily on effective collaboration, rather than on effective control (as is the case with the Carver model of “policy governance”).

The ways in which the board and management are effectively collaborating, fostering a leadership culture of trust, executing fiduciary oversight, crafting strategy together, offering mutual support and—yes—holding each other accountable to further the organization’s mission is what we (and Dr. Chait) mean by a constructive partnership.

The Central Question

The central question that the constructive partnership governance framework attempts to answer is this: “How can the board and the CEO (along with the senior management team) work together most effectively while still observing their respective areas of authority to achieve the credit union’s vision and mission?” The keys to success are in effective teamwork, genuine collaboration and mutual accountability, with both the board and CEO creating maximum value to move the strategic goals of the credit union forward.

Within the constructive partnership between boards and management, boards retain the primary legal responsibility for governance—the proper exercise of ultimate authority—of their organization. Boards also exercise organizational oversight and ultimate policy setting. They properly delegate to the CEO and the senior management team the responsibility for managing operations, personnel and day-to-day organizational resources. As the BoardSource publication The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards notes:

While respecting this division of labor, exceptional Boards become allies with the CEO in pursuit of the mission. They understand that they and the chief executive bring essential, complementary ingredients to the governance partnership that, when combined, are greater than the sum of their parts. Exceptional boards recognize they cannot govern well without the CEO’s collaboration and that the CEO cannot lead the organization to its full potential without the board’s unflagging support.

This central governance “partnership relationship” was further developed by the work of Ram Charan—co-author of Boards That Lead and probably the leading governance expert in the world today.  Charan’s framework emerges from the central question: When is it appropriate for a board to “(1) take charge, (2) partner or (3) [delegate]”? Similar to Chait, the focus of Charan’s work is that the board and the CEO should work strategically and collaboratively as a team for the good of an organization and its mission.

There are, according to Charan, appropriate situations where (1) it is the board that should take charge and lead, such as in the choice of the next CEO. There are also circumstances in which (2) the board and senior management should thoughtfully and consciously work to actively partner with each other, such as in the creation of an organization’s vision, mission and strategy. Lastly, there are significant areas in which (3) the board should delegate appropriate management authority to the CEO and his or her team, such as in nearly all tactical, personnel, operational and execution matters.

One way to think about the strong partnership focus of this framework is to reflect upon how a doubles tennis team works together. Consider Venus and Serena Williams, each superb individual tennis players, but also exceptional as a doubles team. When they are playing together, each must work to perform individually, but also bring out the best in her partner, so that the team can overcome any and all challenges it faces.

The benefits of a constructive partnership model emerge even more clearly when one considers the alternatives. What if the board alone took on the responsibility of determining the credit union’s strategy? Then the CEO/senior leadership team would not be able to contribute their expertise, and they would be significantly challenged to fully understand and effectively implement the board's identified strategic goals. On the other hand, if the CEO and the senior management team developed the strategic goals without the board’s input, they would subvert one of the central roles of a credit union board—being meaningfully involved in helping to set the direction of a credit union. They could also potentially take the credit union too far down a path not supported by the board, creating significant conflict at the leadership level.

The constructive partnership model calls for the board to take a strong partnership role as a strategic thought leader and visionary, in true collaborative partnership with the CEO and his or her team. Together, they must work effectively to determine the best path forward for the credit union, its members and the communities where the credit union operates. As such, the two must work closely together to consistently foster the quality of the board’s composition, knowledge and discussions to ensure the entire leadership team can be effective partners to move the vision and mission of the credit union forward.  

Michael Daigneault, CCD, is the CEO of Quantum Governance L3C, Herndon, Virginia, CUES’ strategic provider for governance services. He 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 Governance Leadership Institute.

Caitlin Curran Hatch is a senior consultant at Quantum Governance, with a special expertise in work with credit unions. She has worked with a number of billion-dollar CUs, including Apple FCU, Community First CU, KeyPoint CU, Redstone FCU, Teachers FCU, United FCU and University FCU.

Quantum Governance provides credit unions, corporations, nonprofits, associations and governmental entities with strategic, cost-effective governance, ethics and management consulting, facilitation and evaluation. With more than 40% of its clients credit unions, the organization fields more engagements in the credit union community than in any other.

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