Manage Your Board’s Expectations or Expect to Get Managed

There are plenty of assumptions made about “the smartest person in the room” and the traits that individual exhibits. I have a slightly different take on it.

Ed Eppley
September 11, 2022

There are plenty of assumptions made about “the smartest person in the room” and the traits that individual exhibits. I have a slightly different take on it.

Repeatedly I see the most effective and influential people in any meeting being the individual who leans on the knowledge and expertise from people outside of the room. That could be a manager who has gleaned feedback on process improvements from their team. But I’m specifically speaking about the CEO who leans on the leadership insights of a Board of Directors or Advisors.

Said another way, the smartest person isn’t a single person at all – it is the collective wisdom of a group of people that someone is wise enough to bring into the room.

If the self-aware leader is paying attention, the group of people ready and able to help the CEO become a more effective executive exists in their Board of Directors.

I have shared my thoughts on how to build and benefit from a Board of Advisors, but every leader also needs clear guidance on how to manage the expectations to get the most out of their board – or else the board will manage them.

Recognize the traits of a high-functioning board

A board exists to ensure the fiduciary success of the business. It helps the CEO as well as the company’s executive leadership and teams, while also challenging the strategies necessary to propel the organization forward. To provide meaningful executive guidance, the individuals who comprise the board should possess two things: deep industry experience and functional insights from their time in leadership roles.

With that in mind, it is expected that a high-caliber board will:

  • Bring an unbiased perspective. These are successful businesspeople who have been in the trenches and have had many of the experiences your company will encounter. Their experiences and hindsight become invaluable in guiding the executive team through its work, especially when the work is challenging and hard.
  • Won’t be dismissed easily. A seat on the board is a result of the expertise each individual brings. Great board members will speak their mind and their perspectives won’t easily be dismissed. Board members who consistently rubber stamp leadership’s thinking and don’t constructively question and challenge leadership in some capacity aren’t doing the leadership team any favors.
  • Demand accountability. Just as teams report to leaders, leaders must also be accountable to the board on executing the strategy. When leaders begin to slip or fail on the accountability front, expectations are flipped. This is when the board begins to manage the leadership team.
  • Expect to serve. It should be obvious, but this reality is often overlooked. Asking for their help and insight is not encroaching on the time board members have offered up. They have agreed to serve you. If you’re not tapping into what they have to offer, you’re likely wasting their time and not getting the most from what they can give.

Four actions to better manage your board’s expectations

Getting the most out of your board requires thoughtful advanced planning. In doing so you’ll give the board ample time to consider what’s being asked of them. It’s a combination of timing and intention.

The following actions will ensure you are managing expectations while also maximizing the value of your board.

  1. Write out and share what you want from the board (4-6 weeks in advance of board meetings). This gets your board thinking about the issues to be covered in the next meeting. It should be focused with no more than two or three issues to be addressed.
  2. Provide materials that give context and deeper insight (no later than 2 weeks in advance). Provide the necessary background and support material that will help your board understand your challenges. This will guide them on the relevant insights and experiences to bring the meeting. Ask board members what else would be helpful as the materials you’ve selected might prompt a need for additional material.
  3. Run an effective board meeting. All your pre-planning and agenda preparation has set the meeting up to run its course successfully regardless of specific outcomes. As a result, board members will see their time being used effectively. Conversely, the inability to run an effective board meeting seeds doubt among the board regarding the leader’s management capability.
  4. Consider periodic assessments of the board’s effectiveness. Board members, the CEO, and participating executive team members deserve to give and receive feedback about what they give/receive from their participation. Periodic assessments keep everyone engaged, accountable, and focused on continually improving the board’s overall effectiveness. This is especially helpful as executive team members change, as well as when board terms expire, and as new board members are added.

The self-aware leader isn’t concerned with looking smart – they are focused on taking smart actions. Managing the board is a balance of demonstrating the confidence to lead and having the humility to ask for insight and support. Those who do this effectively win the confidence of the board, while also growing and stretching themselves to become the leaders their company needs them to be.