CEO Coaching: Distracted Ownership

A view of the owners’ box—with a new ownership group and president—at a Denver Broncos game surprised me (a Minnesota transplant from 30 years ago makes me more Broncos fan than Vikings). Several owners and the team president had their heads buried in their phones. I suspect they weren’t calling plays down to the new coach. (Or perhaps they were, based on prevalent gaffs!)

Distracted owners and leaders are concerning. In the NFL, owners cede control to the coaching staff. Even hotheads like Jerry Jones and Al Davis have allowed coaches to call plays (how much meddling goes on off the field is another matter). So, I admit that the NFL isn’t a good metaphor for many other businesses, but seeing those folks with their heads bowed toward their iPhones rather than the field in the middle of the game was surprising.

Boards of directors, business owners, and senior leaders who don’t have their head in the game (not calling plays!) can cause poor decisions and poor investments and demoralize those who have to block and tackle. 

I’ve had conversations with numerous CEOs who’ve groused about their board or owners not understanding the business well enough. “You need to own that!” is my typical response. One often unspoken duty of CEOs is to inform and influence (not obfuscate!) their board or owners. Tell them all the bad stuff, all the good stuff, the risks you foresee, and the plans you have to mitigate those risks. They might drive you nuts, but bring them close. Don’t let them make the day-to-day decisions, but make sure they know what you’re doing and why. Overcommunicate with them, just like you should with your team.

This requires that you negotiate your role effectively; best done when you’re offered the position, but the relationship can also be reset with the right conversation, even in the middle of the game. 

CEOs serve at the pleasure of the board, but I believe they also need to manage the board—not manipulate, but educate and communicate effectively. They also need to have enough talent and chutzpah to carve out their role so they can call the plays on the field. 

The CEO-board relationship is an interesting dance and, from what I’ve seen, too often left to chance with unspoken expectations and disappointment. It doesn’t have to be that way!

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