The CEO and Chair relationship is something that has fascinated Starr Performance for a long time. No two pairs are the same, but in our experience we find some common characteristics and also one big risk that are faced at the top of many organisations.
Characteristic 1: The “Fixing” Chair
Chairmen and women are often ex-CEOs. They can find it hard to give the CEO space to work things through in their own style, often wanting to fix or solve quickly or see things done in their way. This in turn can lead to a frustrated CEO who resents the imposition but out of respect or fear of challenge will not manage the boundaries of the relationship. This can be a barrier to an essential skill of this partnership which is the ability to have robust conversations about boundaries– the roles and the unwritten contracts between each of them that give each member of the pair the space to do their job.
Characteristic 2: The ‘’Proving” CEO
When CEOs find their Chair impressive and perhaps even a little intimidating, there can be the temptation to want to ‘prove’ and to uphold at all times the appearance of control and of knowing. This can lead to the CEO being unwilling to bring a problem to the Chair to which (s)he does not already hold the answer. The important role of the Chair as “Critical Friend” is not invited by the CEO who feels too defensive to invite it. This in turn can be a barrier to the ability of the Chair and CEO to pose and sit with complex or wicked problems together.
The Big Risk: When the duty of Assurance becomes the need for Reassurance
Put simply, the CEO’s role is Execution and the Chair’s Role is Assurance. If the above factors exist a dangerous fissure can open up at the top. When trust is fragile, the Chair and Non-Execs begin to seek reassurance from the CEO and Execs. This in turn begets the behaviour at Exec level of constantly second guessing what the Non Execs will want to be reassured of. The bigger picture, the strategy and ‘the right thing to do’ can be forgotten in the political second-guessing that precedes every Board meeting.
We have focused on what can go wrong here but we’re pleased to say that we don’t often find relationships broken beyond repair. We have met several Chief Execs and Chairs who value their relationship and its importance to the point that they want to undertake developmental Pairs Coaching to ensure that they can be at their best for the organisation they lead. Pairs Coaching here is not about crisis talks or mediation, but about actively working on the skills it takes to succeed in this crucial working relationship at the top and helping them find the ‘sweet spot’ of mutuality, trust and bilateral challenge and support.