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Successful Board Relations for Newly Minted CEOs

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Trust, accountability, and active listening were the cornerstones for two new CEOs who successfully built relationships with their boards under challenging circumstances. This foundation let them hit the ground running, build momentum, and keep going.

New CEOs have a long checklist of to-dos and challenges right out of the gate. Added to that, they need to establish a relationship with their boards to be effective. As with any relationship, building trust means doing what you say you’re going to do and making sure you’re really listening.

When Bennie F. Johnson began as CEO of AIGA in January 2020, the professional association for design, the organization was at an inflection point. AIGA’s hands-on board had been involved in the day-to-day operations of the group for a long time prior to Johnson’s arrival, so he knew he had to gain their trust to give himself more latitude to lead.

Johnson spent his first 90 days assessing what he observed and establishing a rapport with the board. At about that point in his tenure, the pandemic hit, and AIGA operations switched to virtual, but Johnson maintained the existing cadence of holding board meetings every four weeks. He admits it was intense, but it was helpful for both the board and Johnson to establish checkpoints about what staff was working on and where the group was headed.

“They brought me in to change, but nobody tells you how we’re going to change,” Johnson said.

“I’m not going to be successful if I don’t know what they expect from me, the vision they have for the organization, and how we can fulfill that mission.” — Angela Schnepf, CAE, LeadingAge Illinois

Accountability Builds Trust

The frequent board meetings and updates helped Johnson establish trust with his board, and now they have shifted to a more traditional meeting schedule. This year, he anticipates the board will meet five times—instead of every four weeks—and have a strategic planning session. He also switched to a new way of reporting that focuses on what the staff team is doing to move forward.

“It was great to see the board self-correct and say, ‘That’s why Bennie and his team are here,’” Johnson said. “I wanted to build that trust, so they knew someone had active control over the wheel. We also wanted to show we had both a short- and midrange view of where we needed to go and how we were getting there.”

AIGA’s board changes every two years, so Johnson will constantly be building relationships and rapport with new board members. His successful start in uncertain times has proven that he and his team can deliver.

“We were able to show our competence, professionalism, and sincere desire to partner with the board to ultimately do what’s best for our professional association,” he said. “Because so much of what we may have thought worked in 2018 is not relevant for 2022.”

One-On-One Gets Things Done

The board at LeadingAge Illinois—a trade association that represents the full spectrum of those providing aging services—was familiar with its new CEO, Angela Schnepf, CAE, but in a much different capacity. She had served as its executive vice president for seven years before becoming CEO in August 2021. “The work I did was mostly behind the scenes,” she said. And she was taking over for a well-liked and respected CEO who had been with the organization for 32 years.

Schnepf, who is generally reserved, said it has been a challenge for her to follow in the footsteps of a more outgoing CEO. She paved her own way by opting to work one-on-one with board members.

“That is much easier for me than walking into a group, hugging everyone, and interacting in an extroverted way,” she said. She also prepares talking points she knows will help spur conversations to help her manage both the professional and the social aspects of the job. “I prepare for those casual moments as much as the formal interactions,” she said.

It was important for Schnepf to establish herself in a more visible role than the one she held before, so she wasted no time and hit the road two weeks into her tenure, driving across the state to meet each board member. She knew she needed to listen more than she spoke and provide board members with an opportunity to open up to her.

“I’m not going to be successful if I don’t know what they expect from me, the vision they have for the organization, and how we can fulfill that mission,” Schnepf said. “None of us are mind readers.”

Board members appreciated the opportunity to share their thoughts, which was reflected at a strategic planning meeting two months later. Members were highly engaged, asking questions and delving into data and other information Schnepf presented. She says they felt comfortable enough to speak up when her perspective didn’t necessarily align with what they were experiencing in their communities.

Schnepf acknowledges it was difficult to open herself to the board in that way. “As a CEO, you want to be able to go in and say, ‘I know it all because I’m providing value and this is what you’re paying me for,’” she said. “It really does put you in a vulnerable position, but I don’t think I lose my voice by opening the door and asking questions.”

Once Schnepf established trust with her board, delivering on expectations and taking ownership for mistakes was key for building momentum. And she’s also honest about what’s possible to achieve. “I am not going to bite off more than I can chew and fail,” she said, “because I’d rather deliver.”

Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now.

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