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Building Relationships with the Board – A Guide for the New Leader

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THIS BLOG POST IS WRITTEN BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR, PATRICK MALONE, Director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.

Governing Boards, Working Boards, Advisory Boards, Alumni Boards, and the like all serve an invaluable function for an organization.  They provide counsel, contacts, ideas, and a sounding board for leadership.  But this doesn’t happen automatically.  It only occurs when there’s a healthy and open exchange of knowledge and ideas across the table. Nowhere is this exchange more important than in the dynamic between the leader of the organization and the individual Board members.

There’s a very good chance the Board had a hand in the selection of the new Director, CEO, etc. So, a strong likelihood exists that they are at least somewhat familiar with the selectee.  But with one leader and multiple Board members, much work remains to be done in the relationship-building department.  Organizational leaders are in the best position to foster relationships that can benefit all.  For example:

Understand the Board versus the Board member.

There is a significant difference between what individual Board members do and what the governing body itself does.  For example, Boards will require fiscal health of an organization, but an individual Board member may be able to provide expert advice on investments.  Boards may require delivery of current educational content but an individual Board member may be a professor.

Do your homework.

Individuals are selected to governing boards for a reason, typically because they’ve accomplished something substantial in their own rite.  Take the time to do a little homework on individual members to gain insight into what makes them tick.  You may discover something unexpected.

Meet with Board members individually.

Nothing says more about wanting to build an authentic relationship than one-on-one uninterrupted time.  Meet the Board member at their office, or better yet, take them to lunch.  Ask Board members about their experience with the organization, their vision, and what they see as the most significant challenges on the landscape.  Keep it relaxed but professional. 

Does everyone agree on the common values?

Common mission and values drive organizational and team success.  Misalignment in these areas is often the reason for organizational and relationship failures.   The pressure to succeed is a string and emotionally charged one.  Ensure clarity of values and mission and don’t be afraid to challenge the definitions of the terms used.  Complete transparency is a must.

Attempt to uncover the true nature of Board discussions.

This will take some time to assess but does the Board atmosphere encourage reflective questions and learning?  How many times during a Board meeting do members make declarative statements instead of asking questions?  Helping members to create an environment encompassing the latter will be crucial.  And closely related…….

What are the undiscussables and how does the Board deal with them?

Every organization has its share of undiscussables (elephants in the room) that elude discourse.  These topics often reveal themselves through knowing glances, stated and unstated viewpoints, and body language.  Does the culture allow for these elephants to be recognized and thoroughly vetted/? 

Address conflict early on.

Good leaders and Board members are notoriously passionate – and confident! During Board meetings, however, this confidence can manifest itself in the form of closed minds, quick solutions, and an unwillingness to discuss other viewpoints.  Conflict is not inherently bad.  Not taking advantage of what it has to offer, is.  Make sure all agree on what conflict means and how to handle it well.

Decide on deciding.

Knowing which decisions will be taken, and by whom, and when, is paramount in moving the organization forward.   Discuss how the executive and the board chair will decide matters of importance small and large.  Which decisions will be held by the organizational leader?  Which ones fall to the Board or to its subcommittees?

Keep ‘em informed.

Board members love to be involved and to know what’s happening, and not only on large matters.  Keep the Board apprised of interesting initiatives, funny anecdotes, and small signs of progress or appreciation.  It reminds them of their importance and opens the door to new ideas.

Say thank you.

Men and women serving on governing boards often do so out a sense of duty or desire to give back to an organization or a cause.  But all work and no play, even for the most committed, is a drag.  Make time for social events to allow the Board to network and just have a little fun.  They will greatly appreciate the gesture.

Don’t be afraid to be you.

Avoid feeling the tug of acting in a certain way – exaggeratedly attentive, crazy enthusiastic, or overly respectful.  Neuroscience is now beginning to show us why this doesn’t play.  Boards have seen plenty of ‘yes men’ and ‘yes women’ over the years.  Be the breath of fresh air that signals a new day.  Be authentic.  Be a leader.

Of course, not all Board/leader relationships are good ones.  Some leaders feel disconnected with their Boards.  Others resent the incessant meddling from Board members or feel a loss of autonomy.  But this is nothing that a little conversation and honest dialogue can’t resolve.  It is the organizational leader’s responsibility to tap into the talents that the Board offers. Create the conditions.  Build the dialogue.  Don’t wait for the Board to do so.  When this is done well, the synergy between the Board and the leader is palpable and everyone benefits.

Patrick S. Malone, PhD is the Director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C.  He can be reached at pmalone@american.edu.

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