CEOs often fall into the trap of orchestrating meetings with their Board of Directors to:
- Show how great they are and how well things are going (whether they really are or not!).
- Avoid leaving the meeting with more to do than when it started.
A great deal more value can be derived from working with a board but it takes concerted effort to build, cultivate, prepare for, and work with individual board members and the board as a whole for that potential to be realized. Efforts to build a high-performing board are well-spent.
Boards are not all the same
There are three distinctly different kinds of boards. Leaders often mix-up the three kinds which leads to confusion and poor performance. It is critical for a leader to be clear about what kind of board s/he is working with and to manage it accordingly.
A Celebrity Board is comprised of people who bring attention and prestige to the organization and who may, just by their presence, provide access to potentially valuable resources including money, customers, employees, partners, press, and prestige.
A Board of Advisers is a collection of individuals with directly relevant personal experience in what the organization is doing and dealing with. Advisers may have first-hand experience in the industry dealing with the same problems the organization faces and offer valuable perspective and insight into best practices, benchmarks, and what will and will not work because they have previously done the same successfully themselves.
Advisory Board members generally each have specific experience, knowledge, and perspective that is often ideally tapped-into in a bi-lateral (i.e., one-on-one) interaction rather than in a group forum where each will struggle to deliver what they think they have been recruited to provide while also jockeying for position and esteem relative to others present.
See the Sample Advisory Board Charter for a way to set up an Advisory Board. The organization leader, or designee, regularly connects with each Advisory Board member to draw on their specific expertise in key situations. In addition, organization leaders meet with the Advisory Board as a group two to four times a year for three or so hours at a time.
For each Advisory Board meeting, organization leaders prepare background material on two or three of the most important things going on, along with specific questions the team is struggling with, to send out two or so days ahead. Advisers read the background, think critically, and develop a point of view to share. In the meeting, organization leaders talk through key points, field clarifying questions from advisers, and then draw out the best advice from each adviser in turn for each item.
The third type of board is an Accountability Board, or Board of Directors, or Governing Board, which has a three-pronged charter (see: Sample Accountability Board Charter) to:
- Provide a consistent point of accountability. I.e., where management puts before the board a plan and regularly reports on how things are going relative to plan.
- Help with individual and collective focus. I.e., what the organization as a whole seeks to accomplish and how it is going, and what each leadership team member is assigned to accomplish and how is it going.
- Provide access to resources such as ideas, funding, customers, employees, best practices, training, partners, and perspective.
Accountability Board members are generally also invited to attend and participate fully as Advisory Board members.
Accountability Board Mechanics
Accountability Boards meet three or four times a year in-person and once or twice a year by conference call. Meetings cover the following agenda for the organization as a whole and for one to three key topics:
- What management said it would do.
- What has been done.
- What happened.
- What has been learned.
- What is planned to be done next.
The topics to be covered at an upcoming meeting are generally drafted well ahead of time by the CEO, in coordination with the Board Chair, and distributed for review by board members who are invited to suggest points of clarification, addition, or deletion.
The organization’s overall fiscal health is a key topic for every meeting. The financial model, financial plan, and performance projections are reported via the income statement, cash flow, and balance sheet. All three are constantly in focus and assessed carefully relative to past performance, planned performance, and peer performance to set the context for all other discussion topics.
Materials for each agenda item are prepared, forwarded a full two or so days in advance, and walked through at the meeting. Accountability Board members ask questions to clarify what is covered and to push-up management thinking. Each board member then offers her/his best advice before moving on to the next topic.
Members of the leadership team attend Accountability Board meetings and listen carefully to what advisers convey through their questions and comments without being the least bit defensive. The Board Chair works with the CEO to create and maintain a meeting environment in which it is safe for management to say what needs to be said and to be sure leaders hear what needs to be heard.
It takes conscious cultivation effort for the Board Chair to intervene and give individual and group coaching when discussions go off track or when participants talk past each other as often happens.