Unsatisfied Board Members Put CEOs At Risk

I wish I could report that the majority of board members I’ve encountered over the years have been satisfied owners of their governing work, but, sad to say, the overwhelming majority, based on my interviews, have felt unfulfilled, underutilized, disengaged, dissatisfied, frustrated, disappointed, and the like.  For example, when I interviewed the board members of a large national professional association a few months ago, responses to my question about the governing experience were typical of what I hear much of the time:  “We spend all our time just listening to staff reports in board meetings – boring!”  “I’m really not sure what my role is, and I definitely don’t feel like I’m making much of a difference.”  “We just thumbed through the finished line-item budget a month before we had to vote on it, so any changes we could make at that point were pretty trivial – really a waste of our time.”  “I can’t say we’re making any really strategic decisions, or dealing with any of our high-stakes issues; it’s like, you know, Nero fiddling while Rome was burning.”

Early in my consulting career, the pressing need for a board-savvy CEO to concentrate on building feelings of satisfaction and ownership among board members was vividly brought home, teaching me a lesson I fortunately took to heart and incorporated into my consulting tool kit.  I was working with one of the smartest, technically most capable CEOs I’ve ever met.  He actually intimidated me on occasion, which was no mean feat.  He – let’s call him “Howard,” was in many ways an executive virtuoso, who’d really mastered his leadership craft – with one notable exception that proved deadly.  Early one morning, walking into Howard’s office to discuss the upcoming board meeting, I found him ashen-faced.  “For heaven’s sake, Howard,” I said, “what’s happened?”  “Here,” he replied, handing me a piece of paper, “read this and tell me what you think.”   It turned out to be the board’s most recent evaluation of Howard’s chief executive performance.  As I worked my way down the page, I couldn’t figure out what the problem was; Howard was scoring really high on every item that had been ranked:  strategic planning, financial management, public relations, and the like.  But when I got to the bottom, I found that the board had decided he should ply his CEO trade elsewhere.  In effect, what they said was, “You’re really great at what you do, but you’ve left us out of the action.  We feel uninvolved, uncreative, and condescended to.  We’ve had it, and you’re out.”

Due in January 2014:  Doug’s The Board-Savvy CEO

(An excerpt from Doug’s forthcoming new book, The Board-Savvy CEO)

Doug Eadie