The CEO & The Board of Directors

The CEO & The Board of DirectorsIncoming CEOs have a monumental task. They must settle into their new role, define the vision for the organization, communicate that vision with crystal clear precision, align the workforce around the vision, live the organizational values, build a cohesive leadership team, focus on external forces including customers, shareholders, and markets, as well as execute flawlessly on strategy.

That is a lot, right? There’s even more. The incoming CEO must also adjust from reporting to one person, usually the outgoing CEO, to reporting to an entire board of directors. If he/she came from another CEO role, then he/she must now report to a new group of directors and either way, the task can be daunting.

The relationship between the new CEO and the board is very important. I believe that most CEOs know that this relationship is critical; however, some senior executives fail to adequately prioritize board relationships. I have worked with some seasoned CEOs who do an excellent job of working with their boards and as I watched them, I noticed that they have typically built positive professional relationships with the board. They usually know each individual director’s hot buttons and preferred communication styles, and they are focused on meeting their needs. They work closely with the corporate secretary and administrative teams to get materials professionally prepared and delivered on time or early and ensure that the board members are adequately prepared for each meeting and that the business at hand can be the primary focus.

In addition to these foundational steps, these experienced CEOs also think carefully about what is presented to the board to ensure that their expertise is utilized appropriately. They deliver all of the information that the board needs to allow them to provide suitable board governance. The directors are sometimes given tours of different parts of the business such as plants and/or division offices, told relevant stories about safety initiatives and/or employee successes, and given access to applicable information that will provide context for decision-making.

Perhaps even more importantly, these CEOs give their board members an opportunity to provide feedback on a regular basis. One CEO that I have worked with for years has been the senior executive in the same 10,000-employee organization for over 25 years. He is respected by employees and board members alike. Even now, after 25 years and in the later stage of his career, he still asks for 360s regularly, reviews them with the board, and invites the directors to provide additional in-person feedback. He is open and transparent, which enables the directors to feel comfortable discussing issues with him at any time.

On the other hand, I have noticed that some incoming CEOs struggle with the board. Even if they get all of the other pieces right, many do not actively solicit feedback and this can ultimately be a point of dissention. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Incoming CEOs can open the lines of communication with the directors by asking them how they would prefer to give feedback to the CEO. If a process is not already in place, the CEO can make some recommendations to the board which demonstrates openness. The more amenable the CEO is to accepting feedback the better, because psychologically this lowers barriers and allows the directors to see that the CEO is going to be responsive, curious, and receptive to input on difficult issues.

Occasionally an incoming CEO becomes adversarial with the one or more members of the board. I have never seen this work out well. After all, the board’s role is to provide oversight, which means they also manage the selection, compensation, and performance of the CEO. Finding a way to build a positive relationship from the get-go is a good idea to say the least.

Every organization and every CEO will go through challenging times. Organizational performance as well as CEO performance will be questioned at various points. An incoming CEO will be more likely to weather the storms of leadership if he/she has a strong relationship with each member of the board. It may not be easy when the day-to-day leadership work is so intense, but neglecting this part of the role can be truly detrimental to a CEO’s long-term success.