09 Mar 2020
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Success requires taking time for due diligence, building relationships, and prioritizing time with your board chair.
When Dr. Paul Woods stepped into the role of CEO for London Health Sciences Centre back in late 2017, he felt confident and ready for the new challenge: “I’d managed a bigger portfolio in a previous role and felt excited and prepared for the work ahead,” he says. Early in his onboarding process, however, Woods quickly uncovered two challenges that he wasn’t quite as prepared for. The first, he says, was understanding how much work it was going to take to work with and manage his board of directors. The second was realizing just how solitary the position could feel.
Woods’s experience early in his tenure is quite typical of most first-time CEOs. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, half of CEOs express feelings of isolation and 61% believe it hinders their job performance. “It’s a lonely position,” Woods says, “and it’s hard to find people to bounce ideas around with or get real feedback.”
Prioritizing your relationship with your board directors and chair at the onset can be the key to mitigating both these challenges. Understanding the role of your board and taking the time to build strong relationships can make all the difference for a successful tenure.
Build a bond with the chair: the top priority
Today’s boards, both in Canada and the US, have more fiduciary responsibilities than ever before. They’ve also become more involved in larger, strategic aspects of corporate management like digital transformation, culture development, and talent management. This increased involvement and expectation of collaboration can be a challenge for many CEOs and senior leaders, especially those not used to working closely with boards. New executives may prioritize management teams and strategy development during onboarding, but this can be a mistake.
According to Rahul Bhardwaj, President of the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), developing a relationship with the board chair should be your top priority in your first 90 days. He says, “in this environment of enhanced corporate governance, board alignment will be the key to success of the senior leadership team.” Bhardwaj also suggests working on the relationship with the chair even before beginning the first 100-day plan: “You need to start by creating a shared narrative of what good looks like for the organization,” he says.
It’s the executive’s responsibility to start with due diligence. Read the board books, review the action items, get the notes from the strategic retreats, and even review the directors’ evaluations, if they exist. It’s crucial to understand the board’s strategic priorities well before starting to plan. Once the background and key concerns are understood, frequent discussions between the chair and CEO are vital.
For some, in-person meetings are best; for others, weekly or even daily check-in calls help to ensure alignment. Getting the right cadence for these meeting is critical for establishing an effective dynamic and working relationship.
“There are very few people that a CEO can speak with candidly,” says Eileen Mercier, Board Chair at Payments Canada. “The relationship with the chair is about having a person that can work with you, support you, and be a real sounding board. The Chair can also act as a proxy for bringing the rest of the board along.” This relationship is key for navigating through varying agendas to create a strategy and help you understand what the board is looking for.
It’s also important to clarify role definitions and create boundaries. Michael Goldbloom has experience on both sides of these relationships, as both Principal of Bishop’s University and Chair of CBC/Radio-Canada. “The relationship between the chair and CEO is critical,” he says. “You need to understand each other’s responsibilities and work as a team, but also let each other do their job.” Goldbloom admits that it’s not always easy to do: “I’ve found myself on the verge of saying to the CEO at CBC, ‘why wasn’t I consulted on that’ on more than one occasion, but then realized that I wouldn’t consult my own chair at Bishop’s on comparable decisions.”
Having a conversation on the outset to understand history and past practices, set expectations, and have a frank conversation on working preferences can help create strong boundaries and set you up for success.
Getting to know the rest of the board
While the relationship between the board chair and CEO is one of the most important relationships for any CEO, it’s also essential to get to know the rest of the board on both a personal and professional level. Other executive members can also benefit from building board relationships, especially if they’ll be working closely with committees and committee chairs.
“When you manage a board, it sounds like you’re managing one person, but it can be 15 different people with different expertise, opinions, and on several committees. You’re working with them all,” advises Woods. “When I stepped into the role, I knew that I needed to win the support of my executive team, the staff, our stakeholders, patients, and even the community, but I was less prepared for the amount of work that would be required to build strong relationships with the board.”
Time committed to these relationships will pay off, since they will help ensure the success of the executive team. Start by making time for an initial call, followed by an in-person, one-on-one meeting with each board member. “The key is to learn what each board member is an expert in and go speak to them directly if you need to. They’ve all been chosen for a reason, so tap into that expertise,” say Mercier. You’ll also want to try to understand how they want to contribute, so you can best harness their advice and make them feel valued.
For Woods, he remembers that identifying the friends, but also the challengers, was incredibly important for navigating relationships: “I’m a physician, not an accountant, so I may focus my attention differently than some directors. Getting to know the board members helped me better understand their critiques and concerns and allowed me to approach conflict in a friendlier way, rather than an adversarial one.”
Even if you do everything right, conflict between the board and executive team will happen. Most commonly this occurs when either the board or executive team overstep their boundaries, or haven’t taken the time to understand each other’s perspectives, concerns, or motivations.
Self-reflection is usually the best place to begin in these scenarios and start by checking your ego. Are you really giving the board what they’re looking for? “Regulators are demanding that boards be better informed and sign off on more things,” say Elaine Roper, Partner in the Board Practice at Odgers Berndtson. “If the board is looking for insights and the executive team isn’t responding, they’re going to step in.”
Reflect on your recent interactions with the board. “Boards get the most frustrated when they feel that they’re being presented with a fait accompli,” says Goldbloom. “Sometimes this simply can’t be avoided, but keep it as infrequent as possible. You never want your board to feel like they are being taken for granted.”
Ultimately, when conflict does arise, a candid conversation with the board chair to share your point of view is always a good choice. If the conflict is between you and the chair, consider finding a committee chair or another board director that you trust to provide feedback. They can also help mediate and find common ground.
Executive coaching can also be helpful for managing these relationships, especially for first-time CEOs or executives working closely with the board for the first time. A seasoned coach can help provide an outlet for frustration, but also provide practical tools to help navigate difficult relationships and find the right balance.
The key to building a great relationship with your board is not being afraid to ask for the help and support that you need. Many senior executives feel like they’re supposed to know it all and have all the answers, but this is a fallacy. Great leadership today means being innovative, taking risks, and having the self-awareness to know when to ask for help. Your board can provide invaluable resources and expertise and is there to help you get it right.