3 pieces of advice from a board member to the CEO


Published on: May 2021

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

I was recently speaking with a board member of a public company. He was providing some feedback about the company CEO, a first-time chief executive who was still “getting his sea legs,” and had some work to do to gain the confidence of the rest of the board of this traditional, conservative company.

As the executive coach for this CEO, I was expecting to hear about the company’s overall performance, which had been negatively impacted by Covid-19, or receive feedback about the CEO’s first-ever earnings call or recent board meeting. Instead, the board member spent time focused on leadership, culture, and leading change. The insights were straightforward and can be applied to most senior leaders. For example:

1. Don’t assume the board knows more than they do. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that our audiences know more than they do. No matter how sophisticated or experienced the audience, watch for the temptation to rush through points that may seem unnecessary to highlight. As this board member pointed out regarding the CEO: “We’re here to learn from you. Point out the obvious. Spell it out. Tell us what you’re seeing, what you’re learning. If the organization is winning, why are you winning? If things are working, tell us why. Don’t assume we’ll just get it.”

2.  Share your vision for big growth. The CEO had been in the job less than six months and had recently shared his long-term strategy with the board, only to receive mixed reviews. After a year of COVID, the CEO underestimated how much pent up demand the board had for a message centered around big growth, new capital investments and where the next big bets should be placed. The board member put it this way. “Will the world need this company in 5, 10 years? Why? What is the next big thing for us? What do you see? Can you paint us a compelling picture of what the future can look like?” He added this recommendation: “As a first-time CEO, we need to see that you are the leader who can bring us into the future. We need to know that you’ve got the followership and trust of your employees behind you.”

3. Acknowledge that leading change today requires a different approach. Major change and transformation initiatives are big-ticket programs with lots at stake, so no surprise that they are likely to receive extra scrutiny and attention from the board. The board member commented, “This company has never led a major transformation in a fully virtual environment. What we don’t want is to see the same approach we’ve used in the past to create change today. We just don’t believe that will work anymore.” He added, “Every single leader at this company must be incented and motivated to become a change leader. The changes we need to make are too substantial to be led by a small group or committee of ‘change ambassadors.’ That won’t work anymore.” The board wanted to know that the CEO had a strong plan in place to ensure that he had the ability to win hearts and minds and operationalize change with an entirely virtual workforce.

Thoughtful feedback from board members is always valuable, particularly when it’s offered in the spirit of helping a CEO succeed to the highest level possible. In 2021, their messages are even more important to hear at a time when the playbook for companies and leadership is being rewritten. COVID has created a new landscape, and boards have a valuable and unique role to play in creating a better future for employees and companies everywhere. CEOs and senior leaders will do well to listen and learn.

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