While CEOs spend a lot of time thinking about how to better lead their companies, they often neglect thinking about how to lead their boards. I’ve chatted with many who find the idea of dealing with their board somewhat exhausting. Whether the issue is boardroom dynamics and perceived politics, or a lack of in-depth understanding regarding the business, CEOs may find their board challenging to manage. But the truth is, like any leadership endeavor, the better you are at leading your board, the better the chances are that you will build a board worth leading. Shifting your mindset is step number one.
Here’s what else you need to know:
- You are coaching a team that rarely plays together. Your first job is to recognize that your board is not together with any meaningful frequency outside of your boardroom. Think about being on an athletic team. Now imagine trying to help train that group for an important game when they’ve not had much time to practice together. This is the dynamic of coaching a board; every board meeting is game day, with four to six games a year, and no practice time in between. Is it really any wonder it’s challenging?
- You need to help these individuals act like a team. Set the context, values and practices you expect in every board meeting, including making sure the interactions between you and your players, and your players and each other are valuable. Clearly communicate your agenda, materials and goals for the meeting in advance, and take time to understand the goals, strengths and incoming perspectives of each team member to maximize your short time(s) together.
- Give your board space to be useful. Boardrooms can often feel like a one way door of information for CEOs and management teams: a lot is presented, but very little useful information seems to come back. But if you’re asking your board to perform, you need to give them the room to do so. One hundred and fifty page decks loaded with information in 12-point font and presented to board members for 100 straight minutes of a 120 minute board meeting doesn’t give your team a lot of mental or physical bandwidth to return anything back to you. Think about what exactly you need from board members within each board meeting in order for it to add value to the company. It could be feedback on a key strategic priority your company is contemplating or feedback on a new member of your management team. Or maybe you want their input on a decision you are highly uncertain about making. Whatever the focused feedback you need, creating a board agenda that drives the discussion and time allocation to the most important items for feedback is one of the simplest and most effective things you can do to drive your board’s effectiveness.
- Implement performance reviews for and from your board. Worried about your boardroom being hijacked by disruptive members or distracting discussions? Like any system that strives to self-correct and improve, implementing formal board and CEO performance reviews is essential. A peer-based system to let everyone know how they are doing with regard to their contributions and style is management philosophy 101, yet a surprisingly small number of private and even public boards adopt this practice. Just as shockingly, I’ve spoken to a large number of CEOs who’ve never been given a regular or formal CEO review by their boards, inclusive of 360 feedback from direct reports, board members and even the wider company. No wonder so many CEOs live in fear or paranoia when it comes to their boards. Without a system to constructively give and receive feedback, it is almost impossible to build any team that shares high trust and performance.
If we want to build better boards, it's time to recognize that boardrooms need active leadership. In the U.S. this role most often falls to the CEO and board chair. But for CEOs who feel too strapped, constrained or otherwise conflicted from playing this role, finding the right individual on the board to partner with as a lead independent, or assume the board chair, is another solution. Every high-performing team needs a coach. Great boards, like great teams, are less about collecting individual celebrities and more about creating a dynamic for them to be great together.
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy is the Founder of theBoardlist, and most recently President of StubHub, which she and her team sold for $4 billion in February 2020. She currently serves as a board director at Urban Outfitters, Upstart, Canada Drives and as a member of the global advisory board of TIME’S UP. She previously served as a board member at Ericsson, TripAdvisor, Stitch Fix, J.Crew and as a strategic advisor to Twitter.
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