You are absolutely right to be concerned about the importance of a good Chair/Manager relationship. However, this needs to be part of a system that has a clear and mutually agreed allocation of roles (who is responsible for what between the Manager and the Board as a whole). It also needs to be part of a culture of mutual trust and respect between the Manager and the Board (as a whole).
I have started out by emphasising the role of the Board as a whole, as we sometimes dump too many responsibilities on the Chair, and let other board members ‘off the hook’ as mere passive authorisers (or not) of propositions put to them by someone else, but which they had no part in the formulating nor even much thinking about. In particular, it is always worth keeping in mind that a Chair has no legal authority to make decisions about anything on her/his own (unless your constitution or equivalent gives a specific power to the Chair). It is always possible for a Board to delegate specific decisions or powers to any particular member (including a Chair), but the ultimate responsibility (and power) remains with the Board as a whole.
Having said that, the Chair is a crucial ‘conduit’ between the whole Board and the Manager. Though it is worth keeping that at the front of our minds that the Chair is a conduit for the whole Board, not an individual ‘manager’ of the Manager (which is an easy trap to fall into - especially if the Chair's day-job is a manager!)
Like all great questions, this does not have a simple answer. I have seen different effective Chair/Manager relationships, where the frequency of meeting together has varied from weekly to monthly. Where the Manager has been used to pretty much running the show on his/her own, it may be necessary to meet more often to start with. Obviously, this is better presented as your need to feel comfortable with being “on top” of things, rather than their need to be reigned in! On the other hand if the Manager has previously been micro-managed out of taking any initiative, it may be worth making sure you do not meet too frequently to begin with.
It is always useful to get back to thinking about purpose. What are both the Chair and the Manager hoping to achieve by meeting? It never hurts to start off the first meeting with this question, and even if you have been meeting for a long time, it's never too late to ask!. I am really clear that the purpose of the Chair/Manager meeting should never be to replace or repeat the full Board meeting - and definitely never to make decisions that should be made by the full Board. At the full Board meeting, Managers are generally expected to provide reports to: Keep board members up-dated on what is happening; Provide key information board members need for their decision-making; and, Enable board members to monitor progress towards strategic goals.
You don’t want your Manager to be doing this twice (once to the Chair and then repeated to the whole Board). So I work on the assumption that the key purposes of the Manager/Chair meetings are different, for example, to:
- support and supervise the Manager in ways or on issues that can’t be readily done in a larger group,
- assist the Manager, where needed, in how to deal with the Board - eg what reports to provide, what decisions need to come to Board, etc, and
- provide a channel for the Manager to raise issues about how the whole Board, including the Chair, is working with the Manager, for issues that may be difficult to raise (at least initially) in the larger group.
As a result, these Chair/Manager meetings can be short. The Chair may have a couple of key questions/prompts to start the conversation around support & supervision (Purpose 1), and then check from either point of view if there is anything to raise under Purposes 2 or 3. (Purpose 2 can include a mutual discussion on how best to deal with an item at an up-coming board meeting, whether it needs to go to the board, what background info board members might need to properly discuss this, and so on.)
Some times, people want to add a ‘no surprises’ role to these meetings. But even here I would suggest this should not replace (or duplicate) the whole Board’s ‘no surprises’ expectations. It could legitimately be a discussion of ‘does this come under our no-surprises rule?’, or ‘is it important enough to inform board members before our next regular meeting?’ and so on. This is the kind of process discussion that often comes up under Purpose 2). In some rare circumstances, privacy concerns, for example, may mean that it is better to share the details of a matter with as few people as possible, but this should be the exception rather than the rule, and when the Chair reports that the Manager has shared certain other details but they cannot be passed on, the Chair should be ready to justify the reasons these other details should not be shared with the whole board.
And don’t forget to make it as easy as possible for a Manager to raise something under Purpose 3 - perhaps with a pro-active, open-ended question like, 'what would make you happier with how I am chairing meetings?' or 'what things could I do to improve?' or 'is there anything that would make your job easier?' or 'how are you feeling about board members' participation in the meetings?' or 'anything else on your mind about the board as a whole or individual board members?' etc etc.
I tend to prefer informal meetings, where everyone is more relaxed - over coffee, in a relaxed setting. But be careful (if you go to a coffee shop or other public place, or even if it is in a non-private area of the organisation’s own premises) that you have adequate confidentially so both parties can say what’s exactly on their mind. This can still be a regular time, to make sure it happens. These meetings tend to (and often need to) get more formal when significant differences or conflicts or concerns begin to arise. As an extreme example, if a Chair were formally disciplining a Manager, they would want to make sure there was a record of the meeting and any warnings etc. But there are also times well before it reaches this extreme, when the formality helps to ‘make it less personal’ in dealing a difference.