I recently conducted a one-on-one coaching session with a newly minted CEO who – six months into his CEO-ship – had run into serious trouble with his board. His diagnosis of the situation was that he was being bedeviled by several “micromanagers” on the board who loved getting down and dirty in the weeds rather than, in his words, “sticking to the high-level policy matters they’re responsible for.” His challenge, he said, was to get them back in line. By the end of our session, we’d reached agreement that the irritating and disruptive micromanaging that really was going on was just a symptom of something more fundamental.
After analyzing the situation, we concluded that the root cause of the micromanaging behavior wasn’t the desire of several board members to hijack administrative prerogatives. Rather, the outdated, poorly designed board committee structure that he’d inherited was the culprit. The several traditional “silo” committees making up the structure (for example, human resource management, business attraction, business retention, downtown development) actually invited board members to dabble in nuts and bolts administrative details. My CEO client and I agreed that no amount of training, much less lecturing, would solve the problem; re-structuring was the only viable solution. Of course, if my client had been board-savvier. he wouldn’t have unwittingly fallen victim to an outdated structure.
I wish I could say that my coaching client was an exception to the rule, but, alas, over my 35-plus years of work with economic development corporations, I’ve learned that far more often than not CEO-aspirants reach the top unprepared to build a really close and productive partnership with their board. That’s why mentoring from truly board-savvy CEOs like IEDC’s Jeff Finkle is so critical to the ultimate success of newcomers to the C-Suite. Mentoring strategies I’ve seen work well in transforming CEO-aspirants into truly board-savvy executive team members include the CEO:
- Sharing tricks of the governance trade that the CEO has successfully employed in cementing her relationship with the board, such as showcasing board and committee chairs in the monthly board business meeting (e.g., drafting a monthly board chair report to the board).
- Making sure that executive team members are an integral component of the governance process – not only routinely attending board and standing committee meetings, and actively participating in developing agendas and preparing material for meetings, but also being active participants in board strategic planning and governance retreats.
- And pointing executive team members in the direction of resources that will bring them up to speed in the rapidly evolving field of EDC governance – books, articles, blogs, workshops, and the like.
By the way, acquiring up-to-date and practically useful governance knowledge is far from a piece of cake, not only because EDC governance is a relatively new, rapidly changing field, but also because there’s plenty of wrong-headed and misleading advice floating around that can get a new CEO into real trouble. To take an example, I was horrified a couple of years ago to find in the syllabus of a leadership development program for up and coming CEO-aspirants books and articles relating to the governing work of for-profit corporate boards. This despite the fact that for-profit corporate boards couldn’t be more different – functionally, culturally, and politically – from their nonprofit EDC board cousins!