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A CEO Guide to Board Management

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by Tamara Paton in Interpersonal, Work of the board
board management

Although the midday temperatures remain warm, the sun is rising later each morning and the occasional tree reveals turning leaves. Autumn is upon us and my six-week summer hiatus from board meetings is behind me for another year.

I wish I could say that my return to active directorship was gentle, but board calendars tend to be dormant or deadly. As a result, I’ve attended a rash of board and committee meetings lately and had the pleasure of seeing the scrum with fresh eyes. Thanks to the boards on which I serve and the others that I advise, I’m swimming in new lessons in good governance.

Many of these insights relate to the ways in which CEOs manage and respond to their boards. Although it is a board’s job to hire and compensate the CEO, management can do a great deal to shape its relationship with its overlords.

If you are a CEO or know someone who is, these board management suggestions may encourage more collaborative exchanges in boardrooms today and beyond.

Clarify roles

Despite a plethora of governance education programs, boards continue to struggle with basic role definition. CEOs become particularly prickly when directors lose sight of their governance role. Though directors’ intentions are usually good, the temptation to dive into operational details is powerful. And it’s nearly impossible to have a constructive dialogue on more complex topics, such as strategy, when the line between oversight and day-to-day operations is blurry.

Strong CEOs meet their boards where they are and firmly move directors into appropriate lines of inquiry. Delaying the tough conversations about the roles of board and management only breeds frustration. Instead, CEOs must have a clear view of where directors should tread and respectfully protect the topics that are outside the board’s mandate.

Align and course correct

One of my favourite CEOs prepares for each board meeting by writing a memo to the board chair. He outlines his goals for the meeting and highlights sensitive agenda items. By being transparent about goals and potential hot topics, the CEO and chair can minimize unpleasant surprises and move efficiently through the board’s work.

Even with thoughtful preparation, however, a meeting can go off the rails. It’s important for the CEO to take time to address confusion in the moment and circle back with individual directors to ensure alignment. It often helps for a CEO to summarize each meeting for her direct reports and seek their perspective on the tense moments. By providing insights garnered from the broader management team, the CEO may be able to help the chair resolve frustrating issues going forward.

View behaviour through the lens of ego

If thoughtful preparation and communication fail to avoid awkward moments, consider directors’ self-image. A director’s behaviour may be more about how they fit with their peers than the specific topic at hand. A CEO must also match his tone to boardroom culture. Some boards expect deference and formality from management, while others treat senior executives as peers. It’s a delicate dance that calls a CEO to dust off the Psych 101 textbook.

Balance authenticity with controlled emotion

Directors want to know they have a human being in the CEO role. There is no need to come across as a robot, but there is a subtle balance between authenticity and control. I’ve never seen a board respond positively to a CEO who speaks rashly or loses composure.

The best CEOs speak from the heart about purpose. They tell stories of customers and colleagues affected by the organization in positive, meaningful ways. Yet, they are seemingly unfazed by doubt and criticism lobbed by directors. (If you find a way to strike this balance, kindly share your secret.)

Indirectly offer feedback

Assuming a healthy relationship exists between leaders, a CEO can offer directors feedback via the board chair. These insights can fuel the chair’s development conversations with board members and help raise the board’s collective performance. Though taking this step can feel like a risk, failing to do so only exacerbates tension and misaligned expectations.

 

Admittedly, the CEO role is a lonely one. Having multiple bosses can mean top executives feel unappreciated and micromanaged. Those who master board management are respectfully direct, assured by their self awareness, and open to learning.

Question: What have you seen top performing CEOs do to manage their boards?

Please share your response via Twitter, LinkedIn or e-mail.

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A CEO Guide to Board Management

by Tamara time to read: 3 min
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