“We’ve got your back”: a Healthy Board-CEO Relationship at GPRC
In a tight-knit community like Grande Prairie, there are few secrets. What happens in Grande Prairie is known in Grande Prairie. Years ago, the board of Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) was known for doing the CEO’s job. In fact, Pete Merlo, current Board Chair, had been hesitant to join the board because of its lack of governance. “If I was hearing about it, then others were, too.” To make matters worse, decisions weren’t necessarily made around the boardroom table. Instead, according to Don Gnatiuk, current President (CEO) of GPRC, “Governance was happening in the coffee shops and cafés of Grande Prairie.”
Fortunately, the situation turned around during a three-year implementation of Policy Governance®. At the end of that period, one board member stepped down, happy, relieved, and confident that both the board and the college administration were now on solid governance footing.
What does it look like when a board and a CEO have solid footing under Policy Governance?
It looks like camaraderie born of trust and respect.
In a recent interview with Gnatiuk, Merlo, and Tab Pollock, Chair of the GPRC board’s governance committee, conversation flowed easily thanks to the friendly dialogue and banter among all three. Gnatiuk was happy to explain the recipe for success, starting with the main ingredients. “You don’t have to like each other to do this job, but with mutual respect, you can do a great job.” Gnatiuk insists that trust is also the foundation of his work. “People think that in Policy Governance, trust means blind trust, but nothing could be further from the truth. Trust means knowing that if the board questions me about something, they’re doing it to hold me accountable, and that’s their job.”
In Grande Prairie, people took notice of the change after adoption of Policy Governance. “If you do things right, people notice. If you do things wrong, people really notice. It’ll be brought up with your barber and your dentist. But I’m not hearing the same things I heard in previous years,” says Merlo. In fact, recent surveys indicate that the people of Grande Prairie strongly support the work of the board and Gnatiuk and his team.
According to Merlo, with Executive Limitations, “we can have Don’s back. In order to have his back, we need to understand. So how deep do you go to understand? That’s when it becomes challenging at times.” The Governance Coach™ has provided support during these challenges, helping the board maintain its current grounding in Policy Governance through coaching by Jan Moore. The group jokes that a session with Moore is like a visit to the dentist. “It may not be fun at times, but you always feel fantastic afterwards.”
Even for a board well versed in Policy Governance, new-member orientation sessions with Moore and company are key to staying on track. “Human nature is to meddle. We all want to run the college for Don,” joke Merlo and Pollock. Still, they take their work seriously, which is why the board carefully screens new members. (Currently, the board is screening candidates for three board vacancies.) Merlo says, “New members can change board dynamics. They can uproot it. Most of the people who sign up for this job are leaders with previous board experience who argue their points persuasively.” In screening for governance experience, “nose in, fingers out” is the rule. Merlo says it’s healthy for board members to ask questions, “but we don’t all need to tell Don how to cook or add ingredients to the pot. We stay out of the kitchen, so to speak.”
Another benefit of Policy Governance that becomes obvious in speaking with Merlo, Pollock, and Gnatiuk is consistency. With a capable administrator with clear Executive Limitations, and a board that holds itself accountable to the principles of Policy Governance, decision making follows consistent patterns. Pollock says that when boards suddenly change their behavior in response to crises, they create additional follow-on crises. Gnatiuk agrees. “The board has been through several crises, and each time, they didn’t suddenly change their style. There have been times when it would have been easy for the board to throw me under the bus, but my board is with me at all times.” Merlo adds that, because the board is continuously correcting and holding itself and Gnatiuk accountable, it prevents minor issues from growing into major crises, so “there should be no surprises on either side.” Pollock concludes that, when the board and CEO are unified in their message, the community then trusts they’re doing their jobs properly.
The community also trusts that all is well at GPRC because of concrete achievements. “We move the agenda very quickly. We’ve been able to accomplish things we’d been told were impossible, and good governance allows us to do that,” says Gnatiuk.
Judging by GPRC’s experience, Policy Governance helps a board and an administrator serve constituencies. Although a vocal minority could be distracting, the GPRC board stays focused on the needs of its stakeholders. At the same time, Merlo is quick to add that a good board allows diverse voices to be heard and taken seriously. Also, in order to represent a diverse set of needs, the GPRC board strives for diversity of board members in terms of gender, cultural background, age, and type of experience. Merlo says diversity helps the board avoid “groupthink”, something to which boards may be susceptible, especially in a small community.
For organizations in their sector considering Policy Governance, all three say commitment to the model is key, followed by courage in sticking with it. “You’re either in or you’re out. You can’t put a couple of toes into the water. If you’re going to approach it that way, you’d be better off with a purely administrative board,” warns Gnatiuk.
The tangible benefits of whole-hearted adoption of Policy Governance are clear at GPRC, from the reversal of public perception, to a long series of achievements. Speaking with Merlo, Pollock, and Gnatiuk, the spillover effect of their work is joy. “I come into a board meeting at energy level 7 and leave it at level 9 or 10. It’s something that creates positive energy.”