By Brent H. Ives, Principal, BHI Management Consulting
A substantial part of a general manager’s job is working with the policy-making Board of Directors. We all know this and recognize it as a special part of the public sector executive, plus there is no getting around the contractual relationship. We also know that, at times, THE BINARY RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE GENERAL MANAGER TO BOTH THE BOARD AND STAFF CAN BE QUITE CHALLENGING.
The multitude of elements of working with your organization/staff is fully another article, but working with your board demands one certain thing: sincere attention and care for the relationship. It demands attention to each person, to their level of teamwork, to their individual styles, personalities, concerns and challenges, attention to their access to information, and to their need for a solid professional in that executive position. Far too many managers underestimate the challenges of working with an elected or appointed board. Working for your board, and simultaneously with your staff of professionals at a level that provides balance, clarity and professionalism, is a unique challenge. This requires a general manager to be open and flexible, transparent and communicative, open to new ideas, approaches, diplomatically stern and professionally sure. Sometimes a wildcard in the mix is that boards have their own team personality, they, they have their individuals likes and dislikes, interests and personality, and they have a culture of doing business that could be old, new, or in transition. Your board could be seasoned or new, or it could significantly change with each election. Of course, the board plays a major role in the direction, culture, and policies of the agency, and quite simply, your employment. Deliberate, proactive, and sincere attention and engagement on your part is certainly called for. Below are ten areas for a general manager to proactively assist the board to perform its best.
– This seems so basic, but as a consultant for twenty years to hundreds of special districts in California, lack of clarity in communications is a number one culprit to organizational dysfunction. Key points of communications may include: what is going on, what is upcoming, why is this crucial or just nice to have, or why things cost what they do. Work with your board to clarify your communication plan and the dual expectations with them, and then stick to it! This is a great opportunity for discussion at a workshop for that purpose, or an annual performance discussion. While the board president may meet with you more frequently, share information evenly with all board members, communications is a crucial aspect of any job, but the public executive has a dual expectation to the team as well as the board. Communications is an obviously a crucial aspect of any job, but as the figure shows, the public executive has the double opportunity and expectation. You and the agency are best served when you perfect the task in both directions.
- Assure that very clear and useful policies exist and can be relied upon for you to take certain actions and know your limits. These should be readily available, clearly written and up-to-date. It’s quite a project, but nothing protects and covers you, your board, and your agency like well done policies.
√√ Know Your Board
- As mentioned earlier, each board member has a personality, yet the assembled decision team while together has a personality as well. You should be the one who knows this well and how it best fits with the work the district must accomplish each week, month and year. Spend out-of-the-office time with your Board members, but very evenly.
√√ Be Professional
- Be the most thoroughly prepared professional in the room. As a 23-year decision maker myself, I always need an unvarnished, professional opinion of options that I am choosing between, and your board members do as well. Never have a staff meeting that counts votes. Instead, always offer your collective professional opinion, and then let the board apply their values to that advice. Your opinion is an offering, not a demand. You propose the option you believe best; but, at the final bell, they decide among all options, hopeful with the best outcome for the mission each time. You represent the profession of public administration, water, parks/recreation, library, etc. They represent the values of the public that put them in office. Your objective professional perspective to each decision is critical to good public decision-making.
√√ Stay Close to your Board’s Collective Expectations
– Work with your board to refine and perfect your performance review process. In many ways, a good process is as much for you as it is for them. It presumes that they, as a collective board, have results and achievements they can clearly expect of you within an evaluation period. This is a big step for some boards, and I often find this step is unclear to them as a group. They must make those expectations clear to you, being sure to drill down to the level of clarity needed.
√√ Plan the Future
- Articulate the values of a strategic plan. If you have a great board, document what they know and what they “see.” If you have a board that needs direction, or gets too far into the weeds, give them policy and direction tasks. Again, in my years of experience, nothing quite “pulls it together” like a well constructed, inclusive, forward looking 5-10 year plan. The process is as important to the product as time. Don’t march down the wrong path with planning, it’s difficult to ever start that march again. f you want them stay “big picture,” give them “big picture” things to do (vision direction, strategy, values, public interaction, policy, etc.).
√√ Keep Your Board on Point
- Know your Board well enough to know when they are wandering, stuck or out of their lane while on the dais. Notice and assist them through those times of struggle with decisions or direction. Always make sure the schedule for getting things done is clear, what will come next, from who and when.
√√ Make the Case for Board Training
- Be open and proactive with proposing training to your board. There are many online resources aimed specifically at improving board performance. The more your board knows about good governance and their role, the easier your job becomes. CSDA is a good start, and other options exist to keep your board well trained, like you. The better they know their role and lane, the easier it is for you to be effective You cannot expect them to pick up good governance automatically.
√√ Help Your New Board Members
- Insist on a strong and useful new board member orientation. This is the opportunity to make sure your board members start with the clearly constructed facts of operations, finances, budgeting and policy. Do this right and it will always pay dividends.
√√ Be a Strong District Champion In and with the Community
- Stand in the gap for your board. Be the interface, fixer and closer with public complaints and issues outside of meetings so they, and you, have a clear and concise customer relations plan.
Working with a board of directors isn’t always easy, but when done well, it is the clear example of great government.
Brent Ives is principal of BHI Management Consulting
, a California firm dedicated to organizational health for California special districts. BHI helps district with board performance, governance, organizational assessment, policy, strategic planning and selective recruiting services. Brent is the former Mayor of Tracy CA, a 23-year City Council member there. He is the author of 52 Ways to be a Better Board, aimed at good Board work and the training service, visit goodboardwork.com