Behind every high-impact governing board is a truly “board-savvy” CEO who serves as an effective captain of the Strategic Governing Team. Every board needs one, and so one of your board’s most important responsibilities is to choose a CEO who exhibits the key attributes of “board savvyness”: a collaborative, team-building attitude; a willingness to serve as chief board developer; and a selfless knack for sharing recognition and nurturing ownership among board members.
First, the Right Attitude
I’ve learned to spot board-savvy CEOs pretty soon after meeting them, just by listening to them talk about the governing process. Let’s eavesdrop on two CEOs revealing their fundamental governing attitudes.
CEO A: You know, I stay out of the board’s business—policy making—and I expect them to stay out of mine—executive management and administration. I’m always keenly aware of the danger that they’ll begin to get bogged down in details and become micromanagers rather than the governors they’re supposed to be, so I make sure that I bring them finished staff recommendations and try to keep them from digging too deeply in the details. You might call me a kind of border patrol officer, always on the alert to keep them from crossing over into my territory. They’re a bright and well-meaning group overall, and I don’t think they mean to do any harm, but I’ve got to watch them like a hawk or their tentacles will be wrapped around things that rightly belong in my CEO bailiwick.
CEO B: I see myself in two ways vis-à-vis my board. First, my board is obviously a precious asset, consisting of the experience, knowledge, expertise, perspectives, and connections that board members bring to the board room. One of my most important CEO jobs is to make sure that this precious asset is fully deployed on behalf of my organization: that my board really does make a difference in organizational affairs. Second, I see myself as a partner with my board, sharing the work of governing. Of course, there has to be some division of labor in governing areas such as planning, but, frankly, you can’t draw a line with something called “policy making” on one side and management on the other. I’ve got to be an active participant in the work of governing, and a close partner with my board, and this means not only helping them make effective judgments and decisions, but also making sure that they really own their governing work and find it satisfying.
I assume you would choose CEO B as the board-savvier of the two. CEO B obviously sees his or her board as a resource to be fully tapped in leading the organization, not just as a damage control challenge. This board-savvy CEO knows that governing is a CEO function, not just the board’s, and that partnership is the name of the governing game. And CEO B recognizes that he or she has to take accountability for the quality of the board’s governing experience, aggressively helping the board accomplish its governing work. The board-savvy CEO believes that governing is a top CEO priority—a core leadership competency that ranks along side of such critical functions as strategic planning, financial management, and external relations.
Donning the Chief Board Developer’s Hat
When serious board development occurs, it’s almost always driven by a board-savvy CEO wearing the Chief Board Developer hat. When we talk about “board development” we mean developing your board’s effectiveness as a governing organization, primarily by: clarifying your board’s governing role, fine-tuning your board’s governing structure, and mapping out processes for involving your board in such critical governing functions as strategic planning and performance monitoring.
If you have a well-designed board standing committee structure, your committees can serve as continuous development vehicles in their respective functional areas. For example, your board’s planning committee can work closely with your CEO in designing a strategic planning process that builds in a stronger front-end guidance role for the board, perhaps through participation in a strategic planning work session kicking off the planning process.
Many boards and their CEOs have used a day-long governance retreat as a vehicle for identifying needed improvements in their board’s governing role, structure and processes. Others have employed a governance task force to come up with practical recommendations for strengthening their board’s governing capacity.
Ego Satisfaction and Ownership
The board-savviest CEOs I’ve worked with over the years take advantage of opportunities to nurture in their board members feelings of ego satisfaction and ownership. One CEO I know routinely turns speaking invitations over to board members, rather than just accepting them herself. Another goes out of his way to involve board members in meetings with key external stakeholders, including the media. A superintendent I was working with, for example, made a point of inviting her school board president to several meetings with the county executive on regional economic development issues. And, of course, making sure board members are regularly publicly recognized for their efforts—say, in the monthly newsletter—is a low cost-high yield tactic.
One of the most effective ownership-building strategies is to design into the strategic and operational planning processes opportunities for early board input and guidance. This is the polar opposite of the old-fashioned approach of just presenting the board with a finished plan at the tail-end of the process, turning board members into a passive audience while building absolutely no ownership.
(This article is adapted from chapter two of Doug Eadie’s book, Meeting the Governing Challenge, Governance Edge, 2007)