Effective Leadership Skills: Outsmarting Your Board

The strange dance between CEOs and their governing body (in my for-profit world, typically a board of directors) is interesting. Not quite swing, not quite polka — there’s often confusion about who’s leading, causing bruised toes. 

Over my many years of being on boards, working for boards as a CEO, coaching CEOs and working with boards on projects, I realize that trying to outsmart your board is one of the dumbest things you can do.

Board members rarely understand the complexity of your business as well as you do. They have other priorities, and for you, your business is near the top. Further, individual board members have different perspectives and slightly different agendas. This forces you to be a politician, like it or not.

However, when the board becomes the enemy, someone you negotiate against, a roadblock or an impediment to your genius, you’re headed for disaster. 

In great measure, board members know what you tell them. If they don’t know enough, shame on you. 

In great measure, the board supports your strategy based on your ability to develop a successful one that clearly identifies where you’ll play and how you’ll win, and then on your ability to communicate that clearly and passionately.

In great measure, your board holds you accountable for the plans and budget you agreed to. If you miss it — and most everyone does at some point — you own it. 

In great measure, your board meddles in the details, because you didn’t clearly craft your relationship to identify that board involvement will stick to strategy and results and that it must either trust you to execute or replace you.

I recently spoke to a senior executive who identified that her CEO had backed himself into a corner by presenting an aggressive, overly optimistic plan to his board that he was now failing to meet. Rather than admitting his mistake and offering a correction, he was taking short-term, dangerous actions to try to save face. Those actions were damaging trust in the management team and harming the company’s long-term strategy — and I bet they’ll cause his departure. 

As difficult as it may be, the only answer is to develop an open kimono relationship with your board members. Like it or not, you’re a politician, and you cannot lose the trust of your people. This takes a lot of work, and it requires you to think about them not only as a governance body but also as individuals with whom you need to develop a relationship. 

You may think you can outsmart your board, but that’s a fool’s errand. (If you’d like more guidance on how to “manage” your board, click HERE or let’s have a conversation!)

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