Many Education and Community sector leaders are responsible to a Board. But how many can manage their board? I’ve been told by numerous CEO’s, Principals and Directors that this ‘managing of a Board’ can be as difficult as it is important. With such frequent turnover of Board members in n-f-p (compared to commerce), it is not only the newly appointed Leaders that can be challenged in this aspect of leadership.
It was for this reason that a recent Techcrunch article by Len Jordan jumped out at me. Len has many directorships and his advice on how a Leader can manage their Board of Directors grabbed my attention.
Have a strategic plan that everyone understands and supports.
I know this is self-evident and a no-brainer in the Education/Community sectors. Nearly every organisation I’m aware of meets all the suggested criteria which represents good, contemporary practice, including the strategic plan being:
- the result of widespread collaboration;
- having a communication plan to broadcast its intent, execution plans, progress and changes;
- is simple and uncomplicated;
- with a shortened time horizon (than was usual practice many years ago);
- and has a framework to measure and communicate progress
If the CEO and her/his Board have an agreed upon strategic plan, which is tracked and regularly reported on as a leading agenda item, then the CEO has taken a significant step to building a strong working relationship with their Board.
What about the inevitable changes to the strategic plan?
After being a/the driver in the development of the strategic plan, the CEO then walks the balance between (a) retaining their conviction and commitment to the strategy; while (b) also regularly challenging the underpinning assumptions.
The challenge for the CEO is getting this balance right.
- Sometimes it appears a CEO can be so very heavily invested in their strategic plan that they underestimate (or even ignore) significant shifts, events or problems which undermine it. Tensions therefore arise with the Board when the proverbial hits the fan.
- Conversely, the Board doesn’t relish coming to every Board meeting expecting to discuss another possible shift in the plan.
While it takes more upfront time in the formulation of the plan, some CEO’s will agree with their Board on contingency plans should key underpinning assumptions be breached. For example, what actions will we take if revenue targets are not reached; or what will we do if our building works exceed specific budget and schedule targets?
If you make mistakes?
Len Jordan acknowledges that strategy mistakes are harder for the CEO to face up to than execution mistakes.
For example, it is easier for the CEO to suggest to the Board that their team’s social media platform of choice simply didn’t reach the audience numbers they were seeking; than to tell the Board they were targeting the wrong audience in the first place. The CEO could therefore push ahead with a range of new actions to try and reach that same audience. This could simply delay the inevitable ‘crisis’ as tensions mount between the Board and the CEO.
It’s hard for a CEO to advise their Board that a strategy is flawed.
Len Jordan writes of seeing too many organisations unnecessarily delay making a tough strategy choice because they keep trying to address the flaw through a change in execution. His advice is, yes, if execution is flawed, then fix it, but the CEO should be constantly looking to ensure the strategic intent is sound.
The average of two strategies is usually not a strategy
The organisation must commit to a cohesive strategy. Often this can mean more upfront pain and delay in formulating the strategy as, inevitably, tough choices need to be made.
Len uses a tennis analogy: you can play at the net or the baseline, and both can be great strategies, but the average of the two — playing in the middle of the court — is the worst place to play and is never a good strategy.
Too often the lack of coherence can be traced to accommodating the input of all the various stakeholder groups, with the end result a hotchpotch of ideas.
It is preferable for the CEO to go through the time, pain and effort, at the outset, to develop a coherent, focused strategic plan. The alternative is a convoluted accumulation of the wishes of all the interest groups which will see the CEO continually on the back-foot.
How should the CEO communicate with the Board?
Some general guidelines apply:
- Email works well for keeping the Board Chair/Members in touch with ongoing, straightforward information. A short bullet-point email each week or fortnight on key progress points works well.
- These emails should not be long and detailed. They should not be explaining & proposing solutions to complex issues. Such matters are obviously best discussed at board meetings.
- Bad news should travel fast. The CEO should never allow the Chair/Board to be blindsided by not informing them asap of bad news.
I know a number of CEO’s and Board chairs who schedule a regular 20-30 minute telephone conversation (weekly or fortnightly).
Neither the CEO or Board wants to arrive at a Board meeting with major surprises such as staffing issues; competitor’s initiatives; system problems; or systemic customer/student/client complaints – with little or no solution in sight.
What are Board meetings for?
Too often the primary (only?) focus of the Board meeting is for the CEO/Executive to showcase what successes the organisation has had and how well it is tracking. It can resemble a PR parade.
If the communication between Board meeting is of the style noted above, then can you focus less on the routine updates when your Board meets? Can you tell them:
- what’s NOT going well; or even
- aspects you want to focus on that could become problems if not addressed
The Board can then use the meeting time to address and discuss key strategic choices and execution plans.
Some of the commonly followed Board practices include:
- Board documents received at least two days ahead of time, usually electronically. (Ideally you can use some of the apps now available so documents can be easily accessed via a tablet.)
- Board papers are slimmed down (Len suggests max. 10-15 slides) rather than having a 90-page detailed manuscript arrive.
- Allocate agenda time for strategic topics at key board meetings. I’ve seen Boards have an annual review cycle where specific topic are planned for and discussed. Obviously the annual budget process is one such item but are there other key aspects that should be allocated in your annual cycle?
- Consider bringing in an outside/expert that can challenge the group at key strategic inflection points.
- Don’t unveil controversial topics at board meetings for the first time. Give people time in advance so they can consider, reflect and discuss so as to avoid a Board room eruption.
How often do you ask the Board for help?
This is not an easy aspect to get right. Within the n-f-p area most Board members volunteer considerable time because of their commitment to the organisation. The CEO often feels like s/he is unfairly taking advantage of this goodwill.
But Board members like to help and the CEO should at least offer and let the Board member decide. For example, every senior appointment to your team will likely benefit from a Board member (or two) being on your panel.
Involve your exec team with the board
It is common practice to have the Business Manager involved in presenting the budget for approval. But how can you involve other members of your executive team? When designing your annual calendar (as noted above) who on your team can you have involved for specific meetings?
Board member training
With the frequent changes of Board members that occur in n-f-p, have you developed an induction program to assist the newly appointed members? It is as important to induct a new Board member as it is to induct and welcome new members of your executive team.
A common challenge for a CEO is when Board members want to become too involved in operational matters. Often this is simply the result of their passion and enthusiasm combined with misunderstanding their role as Board member. Training and induction can make a significant difference to CEO/Board relationships.
If you have a new Chair, your budget should provide for them to complete the AICD course. The CEO will benefit from this as much as the new Chair.
Giving and getting feedback
By following the guidelines noted above, the CEO will be positioned to develop a strong, trusting working relationship with their Board and particularly the Chair. Ideally this becomes a platform where not only can the CEO ask the Chair for feedback on her/his performance (in addition to any formal process) but also the CEO can give feedback to the Board. Often this is a one-to-one with the Chair suggesting the Board stay out of the day-to-day operational matters.
It is no secret to anyone that relationships, relationship, relationships are the key to success. It is incumbent on the CEO to establish the framework for a successful relationship with her/his Board and you can read Len Jordan’s full article by clicking here.