Executive Education

The CEO, the Chair and the Boardroom

Dr. Rachel Baird

I used to think when I achieved something in my career like a promotion or a new qualification that I had now arrived. That things would follow a nice orderly trajectory in my career progression.

This seemed to work okay at school, university and in my early career as a technical expert, then I discovered, to my introverted horror, that there was one factor that was starting to mess with my trajectory – people!

Or more precisely, relationships with people.

When you arrive in CEO land the pressure is on. Competence to do the job is assumed (the incompetent CEO is a whole other article). Looking after your biggest asset – your staff is also an assumed core responsibility. Too many CEOs give lip service to this and paper over staff attrition numbers or decreased productivity with excuses blindly digested by boards.

Managing your key stakeholders is another core function. Putting aside all the people who fall within your concentric stakeholder circles, the key to a CEO’s wellbeing and continued employment is the Chair and the Board. Yet often this relationship fractures resulting in at times highly publicised CEO departures.

The number one mistake CEOs make with their Boards is assuming the relationship is ‘doing fine’ without bothering to invest in it. This may work with staff – after all what can they do but mutter and fall into that statistical group that leaves the boss not the job.

So, if you are a CEO who thinks they need to improve their relationship with the Chair and Board, or are a CEO who thinks they have covered but wants to be doubly sure, then you have come to the right place:

  1. Understand your Directors
    Understanding what your Directors are focused is key. If you listen to their questions and pay attention when they make comments, you will in most cases be able to pre-empt their questions or concerns via a well-considered board paper.
  2. Live the Strategic Plan
    Even at interview stage you need to be quizzing the board about the Strategic Plan, its goals and horizons. During your first week in your role, make sure that you have a session with the Chair to clarify the plan’s goals are still in play and that it is these goals that you report to. Otherwise, you will be singing to a different hymn sheet to your Directors and that won’t end well as it’s their hymn book.
  3. Ask for the Boards Skills Matrix
    This is invaluable insight into who is on your board, particularly if there is no one that tells you there is work to do. CEOs need a functional board focussed on the best interests of the organisation be it a NFP or listed company. Whilst the Chair needs to take ownership of this, the CEO can help via gap analysis conversations.
  4. Review Hygiene Factors
    Are there adequate processes and document templates for board reports, minutes and agendas? Is there a board calendar which management works to? Is there a meeting attendance record? Whilst these are all matters for the Board; management has a critical support role. Being on top of basic hygiene not only indicates you are on top of your game it will free up Board meetings for business not wasting time sorting admin.
  5. Hold a Conversation on Board Values
    The values of your Board members trickle down into management and the organisation. Watch for behavioural indicators during normal operating conditions. This will help you understand how the Board will act in a crisis and if the behaviours cut across organisational values, then you will have some work to do, starting with a conversation with your Chair.
  6. Review the CEO Delegation of Authority
    Misunderstandings over this causes conflict. I’ve seen CEOs overstep their imagined authority as well as being blindsided by Board decisions when people act without first being clear about the delegation of authority. If there is none – then get it written up as a matter of priority.
  7. Invest in the Chair
    First among equals they say, but so much more. Your Chair is your ‘go to person’ to test ideas, raise delicate conversations about substandard Director behaviour and to help steer the Board to the issues that require their attention. Work with the Chair to ensure there is common ground on their expectations of you as CEO and your expectations of them as Directors.
  8. Engage in the Annual Board Review
    Yes, this is a board process, but you can help facilitate it and if you have a good relationship with the Chair, you can be part of it. You are an Executive Director after all so don’t abrogate your responsibilities. Use these annual reviews as an invaluable tool to reset as required. For example, discuss new skills required on the Board or upcoming Director retirements.
  9. Ask for Post Meeting Reviews
    This is critical when you are new in a role but just as valuable once you are comfortable in your relationship with the Board. Ask for feedback on what worked, what could be improved, what is missing or needs to go. This will help develop a reflective mindset within your board to enhance their own performance.
  10. Make Sure you can Write
    Too many CEOs struggle to communicate clearly and succinctly with their Board. We all know important first impressions are and as written papers are often your first point of communication with Directors, it is a skill worth investing in to ensure that you get it right.

Written by Dr. Rachel Baird.

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Dr. Rachel Baird
Dr. Rachel Baird is a senior executive with legal and commercial experience managing diverse and remote teams around Australia. Rachel's governance experience over the past 15 years includes serving as a member and chair of numerous boards and committees and she has extensive experience in corporate governance. risk and compliance as an advisor working with boards.

Dr. Rachel Baird is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.