3 Ways Boards and CEOs Can Shun Scandal and Sustain a Positive Culture

Businesswoman leading collaboration session with postit note board.Boards and CEOs bear enormous responsibility for the well-being of their organization’s people. In turn, organizations rely on fully engaged and motivated employees to deliver on their mission. Much is written about how ‘trust’ affects each employee’s engagement. Employees should be able to trust their organization to provide a safe environment that evokes pride and provides ample support for them to thrive in delivering quality work to the communities they serve. Employees are also expected to share values aligned with their organization and to come to work each day prepared to do the best they can. Informed leaders know that most employees share this goal. So when employee performance goes amiss, it’s frequently because the culture, including the systems, processes and tools, impedes their success.

Leadership creates culture. To build a culture of trust, ‘walking the talk’ as boards and CEOs is imperative.

The rising number of harassment incidents recently making headlines is a wake-up call for all boards and CEOs. Sadly, in numerous cases, the issues were known and ignored. Employers’ responses to these incidents are also alarming. For me, it raises the question: What is the priority for boards and CEOs?

To mitigate media exposure crises, contracts are usually abruptly terminated but what about long-standing workplace harassment issues employees face each day? What’s the impact to emerging leaders who may view the way senior members (leaders or staff) behave as the way to lead or get ahead?  What message does it send to employees? Does it suggest inappropriate behaviour is ok, as long as you can get away with it, but if you’re caught, you will be fired? These characteristics don’t belong in organizations that espouse to be just, caring, learning and innovative.

When harassment issues emerge, we should ask: What kind of governance and leadership processes might have mitigated damage to the organization, its employees and stakeholders?

In my previous post, I addressed the relationship between the board and the CEO, how to ensure each can simultaneously fulfill their role in harmony through meaningful conversations, particularly generative dialogue, learning and a united workplan.

Boards and CEOs need this harmony to meet their key mandate: To advance the organization’s mission. This mandate includes protecting and growing the organization’s assets. To achieve this mandate, the board must provide effective board governance oversight and the CEO must efficiently manage the organization.

At the heart of this accountability is managing our most important assets – the employees who deliver on our organization’s mission.

Sustaining Trust

Here are 3 ways boards and CEOs can work together to support our employees and sustain a culture of trust:

#1. Seek out the story behind the data –

Boards monitor performance indicators to gain insight. This must include setting performance goals and monitoring indicators that relate to culture and people practices, such as employee engagement, turnover, sick time and grievances. Data only gives us part of the picture. Its complement is insight into the story behind the numbers.

You uncover this story through generative dialogue with the CEO. To work effectively, we must give board members opportunities to use their intuition and judgement to ask the CEO probing questions.

Boards and CEOs must also be open to feedback from all stakeholders. A leading practice in performance assessment is the 360° feedback process. This can be cumbersome and the traditional process alone is outdated in today’s dynamic environment.

With social media and rapid learning cycles, we can connect this process to more dynamic feedback loops. CEOs can gain more dynamic feedback and insight through tactics like trusted blogs, town halls and webinars. Board members should seek opportunities to connect with the broader stakeholder community, gain feedback on their organization’s reputation and how it looks from the outside. Employees also talk about their work environment and their experience reflects how the organization interacts with its stakeholders.

If boards and CEOs listen, while connecting internally and externally, they can’t be blindsided by a longstanding, toxic work environment.

#2. Watch employee interactions throughout the organization

Boards and CEOs must have visibility into the work environment and how employees interact at different levels. How the CEO engages with senior staff, how executive team members support committees or communicate in board meetings often indicates how these leaders interact with the entire organization.

From the governance level, CEOs and boards can also look at internal relationships by participating in key events, such as recognition ceremonies, learning sessions or celebrations. When board members observe how employees and leaders interact, they discover context behind the data presented to them. CEOs must also make it their priority to spend time with all teams to get insight into rapport or tensions between management and employees.

#3. Prioritize and structure HRs’ role appropriately –

Human Resources (HR) must directly report to the CEO. This structure enables HR to advise the CEO and give the board the support it needs to deliver on people practices oversight and the organization’s culture.

We must also remember the HR function is not responsible for the culture. Culture is the role of the CEO. However, we expect HR  to ensure all leaders and employees have the tools they need to apply leading practices to their work and fulfill their roles. Equally important, it must be a strategic partner in ensuring the work environment enables its people to create the best outcomes for the organization. This role includes having: policies that protect employees who come forward with complaints; processes and standards for investigating these complaints; and learning best practices so that everyone knows their responsibilities. The board must provide oversight to ensure these appropriate policies are in place and reassessed, as required.

Caroline and three other people participating in CN Tower Edge Walk
Toronto’s CN Tower has created a safe environment that fosters the trust visitors like myself need to attempt its Edge Walk. CEOs and boards must also create a safe workplace with a culture that gives employees the support they need to thrive.

There are no quick fixes to transform a contentious or negative culture. A long-term commitment to applying these 3 ways to foster the well-being of an organization’s people will start the journey.

Now is a good time to reflect on the past year, take stock of your organization’s culture and make plans to strengthen your long-term commitment to its people or most important asset.

What steps will you take in the new year to sustain a positive culture built on trust?  What needs to change, if anything?

I look forward to your thoughts on this subject.

Best wishes for the holiday season and for a positive 2018!

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.