Board Chair Best Practices #2: Become a Student of Your CEO

By John Pearson

Last week I began a blog series on board chair best practices. Click here to read Best Practice #1: Ensure that there is 100 percent board participation in the CEO’s annual performance review.

Here’s Board Chair Best Practice #2:

#2. Become of a student of your CEO and inspire your CEO to become a student of you.

Almost fifty percent of the time in my workshops and consulting, I have hallway conversations with really smart people who say something like, “I just don’t get my CEO (or board chair). We’re rarely on the same page. I’ve chaired other boards—and my relationship with the CEO was almost perfect! Help!”

So I go down the well-worn path: “How many hours have you invested in studying and understanding your CEO this year?”

“Is your CEO a reader or a listener? What are your CEO’s Top-5 strengths on the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment? What is your CEO’s social style (driver, analytical, amiable or expressive)? (Watch the 3-minute video on social styles.) Do you know your CEO’s spiritual gifts (leadership, mercy, teaching, etc.)—and, if so, are you leveraging them—or expecting them to exercise strengths and spiritual gifts that God hasn’t given them?”

I explain that every CEO must be a student of their board chair—and every board chair must be a student of their boss. That’s why I urge them to study two resources:

• Read the Harvard Business Review classic article, “Managing Your Boss,” by John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter. While written for employees, the principles are easily transferable between CEOs and board chairs. You both must own and navigate the relationship—not in a manipulative way—but in a mutual respect way.

• Writing a “memo about me” is a terrific exercise for both the board chair and the CEO, suggested by leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith in his convicting book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: Discover the 20 Workplace Habits You Need to Break. Chapter 12, “Special Challenges for People in Charge,” encourages leaders to write a memo, “How to Handle Me.” If written with humility and transparency, it’s a brilliant, brilliant tool that would smooth out much boardroom conflict.

What would happen if you applied the “managing your boss” wisdom from Gabarro and Kotter to board chair/CEO relationships?

“At a minimum, you need to appreciate your [CEO’s] goals and pressures, his or her strengths and weaknesses. What are your [CEO’s] organizational and personal objectives, and what are his or her pressures, especially from [the board and others]? What are your [CEO’s] long suits and blind spots? What is the preferred style of working? Does your [CEO] like to get information through memos, formal meetings, or phone calls? Does he or she thrive on conflict or try to minimize it? Without this information, a [board chair] is flying blind when dealing with the [CEO], and unnecessary conflicts, misunderstandings, and problems are inevitable.”

In addition to a 12-point checklist the article addresses that critical question: “Is my [board chair/CEO] a reader or a listener?”

“Peter Drucker divides [CEOs] into ‘listeners’ and ‘readers.' Some…like to get information in report form so they can read and study it. Others work better with information and reports presented in person so they can ask questions. As Drucker points out, the implications are obvious. If your [CEO] is a listener, you brief him or her in person, then follow it up with a memo. If your [CEO] is a reader, you cover important items or proposals in a memo or report, then discuss them.”

Obviously…all of the above is just as critical for CEOs as they become students of the revolving person in the board chair. (More on that down the road!)

QUESTION: How many hours have you invested this year in becoming a student of your CEO’s learning style, strengths and spiritual gifts? And how will you help your CEO to understand your style and strengths?


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.