How CEOs and Boards Can Leverage 3 Keys to Soar in Unison

Leading Board of Directors meeting - with strong CEO as insight from Caroline BreretonIn my previous post, I identified 3 keys to enable successful leadership, outlining the leadership challenges Boards of Directors and CEOs, Presidents or Executive Directors face. Having served on and chaired Boards of Directors, as well as been accountable to one in my CEO role, I’ve lived the challenges and rewards.

Like ballroom dancers, boards and CEOs must find ways to cooperatively lead together and deliver on their accountabilities, without stepping on each other’s toes. Boards should only delve into operations when necessary and CEOs must appear to welcome detailed questions, even when they don’t.

Each party must develop a trusting, productive relationship with the other and clear accountabilities for the organization to flourish. If the relationship is not optimal, the entire organization flounders, as the CEO and management team struggle to meet new or unclear expectations from the board.

In the public and not-for-profit sectors, boards complete the accountability cycle back to funders and residents. And if you work in these sectors, you know how complex they are.

Patience runs thin for slower progress on strategies, when either the board or CEO changes. Boards organically change when their membership changes. Each cycle brings a renewed need to focus on the relationship and accountabilities as new board members offer their unique contributions. Yet sometimes boards and CEOs forget to put the necessary supports in place to ramp up quickly to a productive working relationship.

To successfully choreograph this dance, here are traditional and new approaches that have helped me leverage 3 keys: Listening, Learning and Leading, from both sides. I invite other CEOs and boards to retrace these steps as they forge their own paths to success.

Listening – From Meaningful Conversations to Generative Dialogue

An essential part of listening is having meaningful conversations so that we can uncover what’s really important.

Boards of Directors govern, while the CEO manages the organization. Yet both provide leadership to enable success, must meet specific accountabilities and make tough decisions.

Board decisions relate primarily to fiduciary and strategic issues. Understanding the context is essential for good decision-making and sometimes requires insight into operations. Structured reports and information can help but can only go so far. Meaningful conversation on issues fosters greater understanding. Coined by William Isaacs, as ‘Generative Dialogue,’ this kind of conversation is gaining more traction with some boards but is not yet common practice.

Generative dialogue mode enables the board and CEO, with their senior leadership, to delve deeper into an issue without overstepping each other’s accountabilities. Each party understands that the time spent on a topic must focus on listening to issues from all perspectives around the table.  The goal of the process is to reach a shared understanding of the context, before the decision is made.

One way I’ve found to achieve this goal is through scheduling educational sessions on topics of strategic or fiduciary importance prior to the board meeting and ideally a month or so before the decision must be made. This process allows board members to digest the information and complement their understanding with other reading/information before the decision-making meeting. In the limited time boards have together, we need to ensure they have what they need to effectively fulfill their role.

Learning – Using 360 Dynamic Feedback to Adapt, Grow and Thrive

Adapting what we know to the context of each scenario we land in is critical. Board members bring diverse skills from their professional and personal experiences and this diversity gives the board strength. However, applying these skills to board governance is different. For example, the way performance indicators are presented in one organization may not apply in another but they may work perfectly for a particular board and CEO. If you have an experienced information management professional on your board, they will apply the ‘nose in’ and ‘finger out’ concept, by asking questions to understand meaning and action plans without telling the CEO how to do their role.

Giving directors formal opportunities to learn about governance helps them adapt their knowledge to your board’s specific context. It is also important for the CEO to have a strong foundation in governance. Even better is learning together to create a shared understanding of best practices in governance.

Either way, learning through dynamic feedback is crucial. Good governance practices include the annual board survey, meeting evaluations and in-camera debriefs without the CEO to discuss board performance. These tactics may generate improvements to board process and even change the CEO and the management team’s expectations in a way that better supports the board or its priorities.

I think there’s another performance enhancing feedback process we usually miss:  Capturing how the CEO and senior management experience the board’s impact and effectiveness. CEOs change less frequently than boards but new board members change the context of the board/CEO relationship.

In welcoming feedback from the CEO and management team, boards role model the principles of continuous learning, which help us all grow.  To be effective, both parties should probe for tough feedback and follow through to make sustainable improvements. I believe we need to optimize the board/CEO relationship so that both can co-create the best future for the organization they serve. Then, at the centre of a successful public or not-for-profit sector organization, you’ll find a Board Chair focused on improvements and learning, as they adeptly share the CEOs feedback with their board

Leading – Uniting Leaders through Clear Expectations and a Solid Workplan

The Board Chair’s leadership makes or breaks the board’s effectiveness. While not always recognized as leaders, the Board Chair’s role determines the success of the board/CEO relationship. Their leadership must start with authentic intention and a genuine desire to serve the organization through their role. Of course meeting management, relationship building, communications and conflict management expertise make the Chair’s contributions even more effective.

Through its succession planning process, the board should define these skills as imperative and support aspiring chair candidates’ efforts to enhance these skills, during their tenure as members.

On the other hand, the Chair holds the CEO accountable for access to effective staff support to deliver on the board’s responsibilities. In setting expectations that the board will have good practices for doing its work, the Chair signals respect for the CEO.

Sounds wonderful but how do you achieve this balanced leadership? One tool I’ve found indispensable for making the CEO and board relationship most effective is having a comprehensive, annual workplan that:

  • Aligns with the organization’s strategic priorities
  • Fulfills its fiduciary responsibilities
  • Builds in generative dialogue time
  • Addresses the responsibilities of the board’s one employee: the CEO, President or Executive Director (through performance assessment, compensation and succession planning)
  • Accommodates its own governance processes (policies and procedures, board succession planning and board development)
  • Supports stakeholder engagement

Once developed, this workplan should serve as a central blueprint for the board’s work and the support needed from the CEO.

Boards play a central role in accountability. I’ve had the invaluable experience of seeing a community-based board step up to an enormous challenge and ensure that the organization it served flourished, even under extreme external forces.  This is how I’ve worked to master the dance between the CEO and board.

What works for you? I welcome your thoughts on these approaches to strengthen governance and the board/CEO relationship.

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