Your Board Of Directors: Managing Their Gift And Their Curse

On the list of leadership skills, people management always gets top billing. The focus is generally on managing teams or project management. But what about managing your board of directors? Because this responsibility falls on the shoulders of only a few people, sometimes only one person, this specific type of management receives less attention.

Board members generally have a depth of experience that has exposed them to a range of problems in a variety of contexts. As a result, their minds move quickly. They understand patterns. They ask questions you don’t have answers to and provide suggestions you hadn’t considered. They have an uncanny ability to poke holes in your thinking and mend holes in your strategy. This is their gift.

The curse is that your work often doesn’t impact them directly. The decisions you face are just one of many other responsibilities on their plate. While they are in your board meeting, your work is their priority. Afterward, it isn’t.

The gift is that they are objective. The curse is that they are too objective.

Managing your board is a complex leadership skill for which there is little training and few people to whom you can look for guidance. You are managing people who don’t report to you. You are managing personalities. You are managing opinions. You are managing intellectual prowess. You are managing power dynamics. And during a board meeting, you only have a few hours to get it done.

I’ve been fortunate to be in an organization with a leader who does this extremely well. I’ve sat in countless board meetings and have learned from her every move. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up while watching her lead under a pressure most of us don’t have to experience.

Boards don’t think about execution.

You must go into every board meeting knowing your board isn’t focused on how to execute the ideas they will suggest. Some of them may not be familiar with the intricacies of what it takes to get the work done in your organization. That’s not why you have them. Their role is to be strategic. The gift is that they are free from the weight of implementation. The curse is they will likely present ideas that might be problematic in terms of execution.

But it is important that you stay open to those ideas because odds are you may be too close to the work. While your board might be too objective, you likely aren’t objective enough. Your board can push what you think is possible. That is their job.

Figuring out what their ideas means outside the boardroom is your job. Inside the boardroom, creating a space for thought partnership while simultaneously absorbing insight from multiple angles is your job.

Boards don’t want details. Until they want them.

Don’t lead a board meeting with details. Too much detail has the magical effect of making board member’s reach for their smartphones and check email. Presentations should provide enough context to spur their thinking and keep them on the same page. Share strategy and vision, history and future, key factors and guiding questions, accompanied by a few slides with data and research.

That doesn’t mean they don’t need details. They just don’t need them until they ask for them. Or until the curse kicks in and they present an idea so far out you absolutely have to rein it in. And that is what appendices are for.

The appendix of your presentation needs to have the details – data, charts, statistics, etc. The ability to provide details when your board asks, gives you credibility. You need to have it on hand so when necessary, you can say, “Let’s take a look in the appendix at slide 38…”

Your access and comfort with details gives them confidence in you. They know you’ve done the research and they can return their thoughts to the decision that needs to get made. They can get back to their gift – thinking without the burden of details.

Always “pre- wire.”

Your board may ask questions you weren’t ready for, but there should be very few conversations you didn’t anticipate or didn’t already have off-line. A colleague of mine uses the term pre-wiring, it means “to install a wiring system in advance of it being used or needed.” The first step is to provide background information in advance. This is likely a memo with similar content as the afore-mentioned appendix. It serves as overview, background and reference point for when questions arise.

But don’t expect your entire board to have read the information in depth. They’ve got plenty on their minds already. Those who need detail will examine it thoroughly. Others will flip through it before the board meeting. That’s okay because they are the type that grasps things quickly. Either way, when they ask a question, you can reply, “Interesting idea, if you turn to the last section of the memo…”

The second step is knowing how your board members think. For some, you may need to hop on a call before the meeting to make sure they understand details relevant to what you’ll present. For others, you may want to know their doubts so you can pre-empt them or be prepared to manage them during the meeting. They all need details in writing, but not everyone needs a call. Their personalities and thinking style will determine that for you.

You only have your board’s attention for moments at a time. You want them focused on the issues you need their help with. As a leader, you need to manage a range of dynamics during a short window in which your board will provide the gift of powerful insight and the curse of objectivity.

While boards contain both gift and curse, successfully managing those elements is only a gift. And there is no downside to that.

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