CEOs, Stop Trying to Manage the Board
It’s understandable that most CEOs try to manage their boards. With directors often attempting to take a more active role in decisions these days, CEOs naturally feel a bit threatened. They’re trying to lead a group of people who typically lack the time or expertise to fully understand what’s going on – but who have real power.
At most companies, despite all the best intentions, managing the board usually means keeping directors at arm’s length. Most CEOs I’ve known are inclined to give out just enough information to satisfy their fiduciary obligations, often in highly structured meetings that leave little to chance. They hold off on revealing the deeper challenges or complexities that might provoke tough questions.
But as I learned over the course of my career, there’s a better approach with boards. A CEO can work in partnership with directors without sacrificing his or her authority – and thereby accomplish far more than is possible with an arm’s-length relationship. It’s all a matter of developing trust. In my five years as CEO of The Hartford, a Fortune 100 insurer, winning trust was crucial to turning around the company in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Building trust can be a delicate thing, but it isn’t magic. You don’t need special charisma. All you really need is courage and self-confidence.
The first step is to show that you trust your directors. In practical terms, that means not trying to stage-manage board interactions. When I took over at The Hartford, the management team took up most of our board meetings going through long slide decks. I got rid of that barrier. We distilled the most important information into pre-reads for the directors to study in advance. The meetings themselves, aside from the CFO’s report on financials, focused on discussions of the main issues. Real transparency, I learned, isn’t so much in the numbers, but in open conversation.
That wasn’t easy at first for my executives, who were used to wielding their slide decks to control their presentations. I had to coach them not to worry and to remember that directors were genuinely interested in their businesses and in getting to know them as managers. So they should just be open to the discussions that came up.
These unscripted meetings not only freed directors to ask more questions, but also gave them more of a window into the company. They got to see the other executives in action, including my potential successors.
It’s important to remember that boards see only a small part of you, and even less of the company. They visit for a day or two and get a snapshot. How you work with them is often as important as the substance of what you say. If you give the board unfettered access to executives, you’ll build trust with the directors as well as with your management team. Openness and transparency in board meetings over time can go a long way toward making everyone comfortable with everyone else.
Still, those steps weren’t enough for me to build a strong basis of trust. It’s one thing to allow open discussion on the usual company topics. But what about the issues that involved me personally? How could I get the directors to trust me on my own performance? Obviously a CEO will want to maintain some discretion here. But openness on even these issues can pay off enormously.
A year into my tenure, a senior executive quit abruptly and, on the way out, criticized my management style to the board. I was concerned enough to get a coach, who conducted a full 360-degree feedback process for me. But instead of just telling the directors about the coaching, I decided to give them an overview of my coach’s findings. Her report was generally positive, but it had some tough parts in it, and I decided to discuss these openly. It may have been risky, but it helped to break the ice. The board members felt relaxed enough to give me some feedback of their own. My lead director even became something of a second coach. All of this was invaluable, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t made myself vulnerable in the first place.
That trust made a big difference in 2012, when an activist investor challenged us to restructure the company. We were still in the process of developing our new strategy, and the stock price was disappointingly low. The controversy could have led to my departure and, more important, a costly delay in the company’s revival. Instead the board stayed unified and we stuck to our plan, which turned out to be a better approach than the strategy the activist was pushing.
All along the way, as we developed trust, I grew to welcome the board members’ tough questions. I could see they were focused on helping me protect and improve the company. A CEO’s job is hard enough. One of your biggest responsibilities is to avoid making dumb decisions. Wouldn’t you want all the directors to feel comfortable challenging you and each other?