Sharper Skills: The Tools CEOs Need to Manage a Board

To manage a board of directors well, every CEO needs core skills that cover everything from setting strategy to facilitating conversation. They take practice to develop—and it may take some reflection to identify the ones that require sharpening.

Because association CEOs must simultaneously manage the board of directors and report to them, working effectively with the board can be tricky.

But it’s also a necessary part of their job. As board dynamics shift, new technology gets introduced, and other overarching forces affect how associations and boards operate, it’s up to CEOs to ensure that their board stays focused, decisions are made, work gets done, and the right conversations are taking place. Here are some of the roles that CEOs need to play—each involving core management skills—to make that happen.

By nature, board members can be very tactical people, and one of my challenges is to keep them strategic.

Conversation Facilitator

While CEOs may be inclined to lead the conversation with the board, they should manage it instead.

“I think there is a very subtle difference there, and the outcomes are very dtifferent depending on the approach,” says Culture Marketing Council Executive Director Horacio Gavilan. This includes getting the conversation back on track when it’s been derailed, paying attention to tone, and making sure that the environment of the conversation stays positive.

CEOs should also be mindful of how board members are interacting—and aware of potential warning signs, such as one person dominating the conversation, says Sharon Anderson, principal and CEO of Anderson & Associates, LLC. In that case, the CEO should “find a way to make certain your introverted members have a vehicle to provide feedback as well.”

This includes being a good listener. Gavilan says he tries to notice not just what board members are saying but also how they’re saying it. Listening and observing “helps me understand their framework of thinking,” he says. “The moment you understand where they’re coming from, everything that comes out of their mouth makes more sense.”

Managing the board’s conversations also requires emotional intelligence. To build this skill, says Ann Turner, FASAE, CAE, CEO of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, “the first thing I had to do was recognize emotions in myself, as to what triggers my anger, disappointment, and frustration, and then how to handle that. The next step is to learn to recognize those emotions in other people.”

One example is recognizing the phases that board presidents go through toward the end of their tenure—they might have a hard time letting go, or they might push the association to do too many things at once. If you can read their emotions, you can help them through it, Turner says.

Honest and Open Communicator

Communicating clearly with board members about their work throughout their term is key. “One reason board members can get mired down too much is that they come on the board because of their passion, which is great, but then you have to channel that energy and help them understand what their roles and responsibilities are,” Anderson says.

When you’re kicking off a new year, make it clear to the board what they’ll be working on, as well as what’s coming up. “You want to make sure everyone is as much on the same page as possible,” she says.

What about when you’re in crisis mode? “When a problem arises, the immediate instinct should be transparency,” says John Barnes, president of Barnes Association Consultants. Particularly if the problem involves the CEO’s mistake, telling the board right away builds credibility down the road.

“When a board hires you to be the top staff person for the organization, you’re immediately thrown into kind of an artificial relationship with a group of 15 people,” Barnes says. “The very moment any one of the 15 thinks you’re dishonest or manipulative or being political, you’re dead.”

Gavilan says he has asked himself this question many times: Should I be saying this? “The answer is always yes, in my opinion,” he says. That’s because, most of the time, the board will realize you’re telling them because it’s in the association’s best interest.

Strategy Setter

When board members get tangled up in details, it can be a challenge to guide them “so that their time and their talents are being utilized so that they feel fully engaged—and sort of lifting that engagement to a higher, more strategic level,” Anderson says. (See “First Steps to Strategy” on page 40.)

To that end, how board meetings are designed is important, she adds. She suggests “finding a way for each meeting to have a strategic or challenging piece on the agenda, to help elevate the work they’re doing.”

Gavilan exercised these skills during his association’s two-year name change process. He needed to make sure the board members were being patient enough to handle this change the right way. “By nature, they can be very tactical people, and one of my challenges is to keep them strategic,” rather than diving immediately into tactics, he says.

Similarly, when conflict arises between the CEO and the board, looking at the big picture may be helpful. CEOs should be able to determine “when it’s worth trying to convince them that something needs to be done or not done” and when it’s not going to make much of a difference in the end, Turner says. You need to know when to act and when to trust other people’s opinions.

Time Manager

Although CEOs have widely divergent standards for how accessible and responsive they will be, Barnes says all chief executives should set expectations with their board. Will they be checking email all weekend and late into the evening? When they go on vacation, will they be completely unplugged, or will they check in every morning? The lack of boundaries—or lack of respect for boundaries—is “a pretty systemic problem that I’ve seen in large and small associations, and every profession and industry,” Barnes says.

Managing time well includes keeping communications with the board timely. For example, Anderson says getting information into board members’ hands so that they have enough time to review it before a meeting shows that CEOs respect their time and talent. It also gives members an opportunity to prepare.

As associations have changed over the last couple of decades, members seem to have less time, and some traditional face-to-face gatherings, like retreats, have fallen by the wayside, Gavilan says. It’s harder to cultivate a cohesive board if they don’t really get to know each other, so he has “tried to create other situations in which they can have some sort of connection.”

For example, he held a board meeting following an industry meeting where half participated in person and the other half by phone. “As the executive director, part of my job is to help them be more efficient and to help maximize their time,” he says.

Not all of these skills come naturally to every CEO, so it’s essential to identify those that need strengthening. Inviting feedback from both staff and the board can help with that. An annual evaluation with the board is an essential part of the process.

In addition, executives should build relationships with their CEO peers to learn best practices. “It’s important to identify a forum or an arena that will help you make sure you’re staying ahead of the game and you’re aware of what’s coming down the pike,” Anderson says.

Identifying weaknesses and then working to strengthen them will help CEOs serve as essential partners to the association’s volunteer leaders. It’s hard work, but effective board management yields dividends in high performance, strong relationships, and progress toward fulfilling the mission.

Allison Torres Burtka

By Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. MORE

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