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.

3 Keys to Make You a Successful Leader

Keys to effective leadership: listening, learning and leadingLeadership has been fundamental to our accomplishments for as long as we have shared stories of our successes and failures. Coordinating work or rather making the best use of an organization’s assets and the skills of its people, along with engaging everyone to advance a better future, drives us as human beings.

So why is effective leadership for positive change so challenging?

Frequently we hear people express their dissatisfaction with leadership. It’s hard to recall anyone writing about the thousands of exceptional leaders we have in the public or private sector. We tend to focus on the few outlier examples, positive or negative.

Different stakeholders express their expectations of leadership from their varied vantage points.

  • Clients/Patients/Customers no longer tolerate organizations that do not engage effectively with them, understand their needs and make a difference to their lives. We need to identify which principles guide our interaction with these priority stakeholders, particularly as this is our reason for being in health care or a service industry.
  • Employees are seeking a different work experience. The workplace is filled with different generations but it’s time to stop labelling them. Yes, we need to understand trends but each employee brings a unique contribution and their own expectations within a multigenerational team. In her “Body of Work,” Pamela Slim describes a workforce who sees their work and personal lives aligned with their drive, passion and values. How will we learn to lead in this environment? My experience in public service and complex environments, such as health care, suggests that it’s crucial for leadership to enable this alignment. This alignment creates a culture that retains talent, which is essential to success in any service or care industry.
  • Boards of Directors are challenged to understand a dynamic environment where they are expected to have their “nose in” but “fingers out” of the business. Can boards deliver on their accountabilities without duplicating the management function? Stakeholders are quick to lay blame if the organization fails to deliver on its mandate, as we have seen time and again. Balancing the governance accountability with the management/CEO role requires leadership in itself.
  • Funders expect their constituents to be satisfied. However, we have just begun to scratch the surface of understanding, through dialogue and big data, what constituents expect. How will we rapidly gain a better understanding so that we can be strategic and thoughtful about the changes we implement?

In previous posts, I have shared my teams’ successes, from working in a complex health care environment. These learnings also apply to other settings.

In upcoming posts, I am going to focus on what I believe are the important considerations for leaders to succeed in their roles. As Ontario’s employee demographic shifts during the next 10 to 15 years, leaders will need to get much better at rapidly learning how to effectively lead others and employees will need to ramp up their ability to collaborate.

I believe the following three attributes are keys to success, which I will focus on in upcoming posts

  1. Listening to gain insight – In my last post, I shared my perspective on how important listening is to our work with patients and families. A key part of listening is having meaningful conversations so that we can uncover what’s really important to our patients, so that we are in a better position to meet their needs. These listening strategies and approaches can effectively guide engagement with other stakeholders. I will explore how these strategies and approaches can improve interactions with boards, funders, residents and employees.
  2. Learning to adapt what we know to the context – Learning is a skill that must be mastered by individuals and organizations. In his book “Getting Everything You Can Out of all You’ve Got,” Jay Abraham addresses the issue of how to avoid the costly learning curve. He recommends we master the ability to borrow success practices from other industries and then apply them to ours. We need to understand that there are well established, proven ways to work with people to deliver what they as individuals need. The methods can be transferred. It’s coordinating the intervention or support and its outcomes that are unique to each individual. “Agile” is a term used frequently these days to describe how organizations learn and improve. It also describes the culture and leadership practices of successful organizations.
  3. Leading with authentic intention – In any business/sector/enterprise, leadership is essential to deliver on the mission or mandate its stakeholders set. In a guest Leadership Lab column I wrote for the Globe and Mail earlier this year, I described ways a leader can engage with their stakeholders to steer their organization through complex change.

Leaders will be successful if they listen and learn and apply that learning with their skills to lead an organization.

Recently Andre Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail about Dr. Philpott’s move from the health file to Minister of Indigenous Services. He listed the strengths she brings to her new, even more complex role. Among those strengths are many that all leaders need today. Most significantly for me he noted that: “her unofficial title will certainly be Minister of Social Determinants of Health.” Given our success locally incorporating this perspective into our strategies, I am excited to observe how this will impact outcomes for our Indigenous People and other areas of our health services. She will continue to “Listen, Learn and Lead.”

Please watch for upcoming posts where I will explore these three critical attributes.

What do you think about these three attributes? I’m particularly interested in hearing how, as leaders, we can more effectively lead multigenerational teams. What challenges do you face?