Working with a board for the first time will test a CEO’s soft-skills savvy. But there are ways to formalize the simple (and tough) business of getting along.
If you’re a new CEO, you already know your board at least a little bit—a few of its members have likely sat on the executive search committee that hired you. But now that you’re actually the staff leader, the dynamic changes. You’re actually expected to start implementing that vision you talked about during the hiring process, and you may be doing it with a board that’s a little more resistant than they perhaps let on. Where to start?
Doug Eadie, a longtime governance consultant, has been thinking a lot about the question lately. “Coming up through the ranks, you tend not to learn what you need to work with the board, unless you’re very lucky,” he says. “One common mistake is to underestimate how much you have to learn, and not invest enough time early on to work with the board.”
In his 2014 book, The Board-Savvy CEO, Eadie writes about the multiple hats a CEO needs to wear to encourage their boards to think strategically and get out of operations mode. But when it comes to first steps, Eadie argues that the best approach is one that’s dirt simple yet often difficult: work on relationships, especially your relationship with the board chair.
“If you take an arm’s length approach, you will run into serious problems.”
“The best CEOs get to know the chair well right away,” he says. “I want to know what they want out of this experience, because I [as the CEO] have an opportunity to help them achieve it. If their preferred method of communication is a well-crafted memo, that’s how I communicate with them. If their preferred mode is in person, I’m going to have to try to accommodate that.”
Being a good communicator is just the start, though. After all, CEOs are in the delicate position of needing to lead the board without dictating to it, and many CEOs may resist pressing their own vision to a board chair for fear of being perceived as hijacking the association’s leadership. But Eadie says that a too-distant attitude contains its own dangers. “If you take an arm’s length approach, you will run into serious problems,” he says. If you’re going to have a really good relationship with the board, they’ve got to be satisfied with their governing role. You can’t have a board feeling disengaged, dissatisfied. It’s too dangerous. So for your own protection, you have to step in.”
This soft-skills stuff has a more solid practical purpose, Eadie explains in The Board-Savvy CEO. Close communication with the board helps everybody not just feel like they’re on top of things, but avoids the ill will that can be generated if they feel blindsided by new information. The CEO “makes sure that board members are never caught off guard and embarrassed publicly by important events they’re unaware of,” he writes. Ultimately, leaders want to feel like they have a direct role in the stewardship of the organization. Surprises erode that feeling.
And the good-communications piece of the CEO-board relationship doesn’t have to be informal. Indeed, Eadie recommends creating a standing committee explicitly dedicated to monitoring the board-CEO relationship (made up of the chair, CEO, and the heads of other standing committees), or dedicating the executive committee to the task. This committee serves as both a formal performance-evaluation group, but also a complaint desk and place to simply talk about what’s working and what’s not.
Consider a relatively innocuous case, he suggests: a CEO who treats the job more as a public-spokesperson role advocating for the association’s mission, rather than a day-to-day operations executive. Boards can split on whether that’s the best move move for an association, but, Eadie says, “in traditional board architectures, there’s no place to talk about that. So what often happens is the relationship begins to sour, but no one’s managing it, and that can can happen very quickly. [The committee] gives you a place where you regularly monitor the relationship between the board and the CEO, with the CEO there.”
And that group can cut both ways. Just as the committee can keep an eye on the CEO’s performance, it also provides an opportunity for the CEO to raise a discussion about what the board should look like in the future.
“Every year, the committee can update the profile of what they’re looking for,” he says. “Attributes, qualifications, certain kinds of experiences they need on the board.” What the board does with that outline is up to them: One strategy Eadie recommends is inviting potential board members to the next strategic-planning retreat to watch them in action and see if they’re leadership timber. (“How do they do with the breakout groups? How collegial are they? How substantive?”) How the CEO and board decide to do that watching and vetting is up to them. The important thing is that they’re doing it together.
What strategies have worked for you in building a rapport between the CEO and the board? Share your experiences in the comments.