Deloitte’s Chief Executive Program published a paper yesterday on “Seven steps to a more strategic board.” Its insights are well worth reading. They did, however, bury the lead. The seven steps add up to the importance of CEOs taking a leadership role in managing boards and building relationships rooted in “mutual respect, trust and support.” That’s the lead.
Deloitte’s Seven Steps:
- CEOs, it’s really up to you – Take an active role in board management.
- Be fearlessly transparent – Be open and humble.
- Take advantage of tension – Grow through debate.
- Facilitate the board experience, not just the board meeting – Build relationships over time.
- Curate information, and then curate it again – Give enough, but not too much information.
- To chair or not to chair? Think about it very carefully – Choose your level of influence.
- Say your piece on board composition – Build the right board over time.
Relationships rooted in “mutual respect, trust, and support” don’t happen by mistake. They are built together, deliberately, and over time.
Be respectful of board members’ context, strengths, roles. Give them every reason to respect you. Respect their time and help them learn enough to contribute as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Per one director, “Too much information can be just as bad as too little information.” You can keep boards in the dark by giving them too little information too infrequently. You can accomplish the same end by drowning them with a board book on an iPad “and secretly hidden are 1,800 pages.”
Think what, so what, now what. Then lead with the “now what” you’re asking the board member to do. Do you want them thinking guidance, advice and input or thinking governance, compliance and approval?
Then give them your perspective on “so what.” These are your conclusions from the information that leads to your request for input or approval.
Finally, organize the back-up “what” data and information in a way makes it searchable by the board members that want to dig deeper into the basis of your assumptions and logic.
Another way to respect board members is not to surprise them. No one likes surprises that make them look stupid, weak or ill-informed. Treat your board members like they are, well, board members. Build relationships with them. Keep them informed. No excuses.
Finally, do the same future capability planning with your board that you’re doing with the rest of the organization. Figure out what capabilities you’re going to need in the future and then create and implement a plan to recruit board members with the talents you need, and to help them acquire the knowledge and practice the skills they’ll need to optimize their contributions.
At one level, this is pretty straightforward. Be trustworthy and have a bias to trust them. This is one of the keys to taking advantage of constructive disagreements. As Deloitte put it:
“With a strong partnership between the board and CEO, what at first may feel like difficult conversations can become revelatory dialogues, surfacing ideas and insights that might otherwise stay buried from a desire to smooth tension and maintain civility stay buried from a desire to smooth tension and maintain civility.”
One of the paper’s authors, Maureen Bujno, told me the key to gaining respect, trust and support lies in CEOs being “fearlessly transparent” and “open to soliciting input.” Yet Stanford Business School ex-dean, Robert Joss, once said “Only 20% of leaders have the confidence to be open to input.” Be part of that 20%.
Help board members know when to provide guidance, advice and input, and when to exercise their fiduciary obligations around governance, compliance and approvals.
The Board Two-Step can help a lot here. Step 1: Seek their input. Then go away so they talk among themselves, with others, or give you off the record perspective. Step 2: Taking into account their input, and encouraging debate, seek their approval to your recommended path forward.