Brian Cavanagh CONSULTING

The CEO and the Board – A Recipe for Success

I have yet to meet a CEO who at some point in time hasn’t been frustrated by their board – it goes with the territory. That said, it should be an exception and not become the norm. As a CEO it is best you regard as your board as a valuable ally. And to ensure that it is, you need to invest your time in it.

What I find interesting is that of all the groups that CEOs have to deal with, the relationship with their board of directors should be among the easiest to manage and be the most valuable to them. Yet for some CEOs the reality can be far from that.

Let me give an example, at a recent event a CEO referred to his objective of “getting things past the board”. He justified this on the grounds that the board were slow to act, and speedy action was required. Whilst this may have been right from his perspective, the result was that bimonthly board meetings became a battle of wills. Between the CEO who thought he knew what was best for the organisation, and a Board that was equally determined not to pushed by him, it ended up in a zero sum game.

Relationships were strained and much energy and time was expended for little productive outcome. And whilst that particular issue, has been resolved, the relationship has never fully recovered, with each party wary of the other.

Taking the opportunity over a cup of coffee to find out more about his situation, it soon became clear that he and the board had never discussed their different expectations and sense of urgency on timings. On reflection, he thought that his “hurry up” approach could have be seen by the board as an attempt to usurp their authority and push them into decisions that they were not ready to make.

So what can be learned from this story? Firstly, it seems that there was a lack of clarity about their respective roles. Their needs to be clarity about how the CEO engages and interacts with the board. Some boards are keen on a interventionist CEO that initiates and drives development in partnership with Board. Others prefer a more traditional role where the CEO is accountable for organisational performance and that the Board drive strategy and direction. As a CEO you need ensure boundaries between your role and that of the Board.

Secondly the story highlights a breakdown in trust and lack of communication between the board and the CEO. The CEO should always work on a policy on “no surprises” , yet also has the obligations to tell a Board the uncomfortable truths. For example, that a lack of action in decision making could have a negative impact upon the organisation. In turn, a good Board is duty bound to listen to that advice.

Finally, CEOs need to get to know their Boards, and see them as assets, with a distinct and valuable perspective to guide the organisation. That requires ongoing communication outwith meetings. Understand their passions and what they want to achieve on the board is they key to this. Help them to be inspired and support them.

That does not mean “surrendering” to your Board for a quiet life, nor does it means constantly challenging it. Rather it means combining your operational expertise with their leadership to deliver effective governance for your organisation. Achieving that is a definition of success for any CEO.

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