Ken Chenault’s approach to board management + Bryan Smith’s approach to persuasion = the board two-step.

Bryan Smith lays out five levels of persuasion in “The Fifth Discipline”

    1. Tell – I’m the traffic policeman on the corner telling you to detour right.  Not a lot of discussion. I’m in charge. You are directed.
    2. Sell – I know I’m right and am going to persuade you to buy my idea.
    3. Test – I’ve got a trial balloon that I’d like to run by you. I’m interested in what you think.  This encourages you.
    4. Consult – I’ve got an idea that I’d like you to help me improve.  I’m open to your input and this makes you feel valued


  1. Co-Create – Let’s solve this problem together, starting with a blank page as partners.

Situational Leadership

These are also five levels of situational leadership. Different leaders deploy different leadership styles in different situations. These range from command and control (tell) to partnership (co-create). The biggest difference is between leaders providing direction (tell) and input (consult or test,) with the associated difference in decision rights.

Ken Chenault’s two-step approach

Former American Express CEO, Ken Chenault, liked to give his board of directors two looks at any major idea. This gave them time to reflect on the idea, talk amongst themselves and come back to him one-on-one before making a decision.

The Board Two-Step

Putting all this together leads to the board two-step.  Let’s begin by taking two approaches off the table. It’s generally not helpful for a CEO to try to TELL their board what to do.  (If you don’t understand that, give me a call and we’ll talk.)  It’s also not a good idea to CO-CREATE with the board. (They want you to lead and come to them with potential solutions and your best current thinking.)

So, we’re left with consult – test – sell.  Here are the steps:

  • Before step one, prepare the board by giving them the appropriate amount of information in advance. Think Goldilocks: not too little and not too much.
  • Step one: CONSULT or TEST with the board.  Be clear you are seeking their input, not decision.
  • Then, go away. Give the board time and space to mull things over and have one-on-one conversations with you.
  • Step two: SELL. Lead the board through a final conversation and seek their decision.

The Goldilocks approach to board information

There are two ways to keep board members in the dark: 1) Give them too little information and 2) Give them too much information. If you give them too much information, they can’t digest it, absorb it, or make any sense of it. Help them by giving them what they need – and no more – and by using a news style inverted pyramid in presenting. My earlier article on the subject lays this out in a little more detail but think in terms of:

  • Headline
  • Executive Summary
  • Details of what, where, when, why, who and how.

Step one: Consult or Test

If you do your job right here, your board members relax. If they know they don’t have to make a decision, they can focus on helping you. Instead of your ideas being a proposal, they represent your current best thinking for others to build on – without having to judge you.

Go away

Giving the board time and space to mull things over is important. It allows them to come back to you with their real thinking or lobby each other.

Step two: Sell

Note this is “sell,” not “railroad.” You will have gotten input along the way. Share the concerns you’ve heard so the board can discuss – and then approve your proposal.

Works with senior leadership too

Although we developed this approach for boards, it works with all sorts of groups. It is a good way to separate out input from direction.  Oh-by-the-way, it’s almost always a good idea to clarify if you are seeking or providing input (after which the person receiving the input gets to make a decision) or direction (a decision to be implemented by others.)



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