EMS Local on Board-Staff Communication

Mike Mason called me out on Twitter to post about the meeting I went to this morning at ASAE & The Center about Board-Staff communication, so here goes.

There were two association CEOs presenting, one of whom brought the current Board chair with her to add to the presentation. It was very nice to have the Board chair perspective in the room. There were about ten other people in the room, probably a 50/50 mix of consultants and execs. Most of the execs were senior staff level, with just a couple of CEOs.

I don’t know that I can provide a complete summary of what the group talked about. A portion of it was…expected: you need to clarify roles, you need to surface unspoken assumptions or expectations, you need to understand the variety of communication styles/preferences of various leaders, etc.

One question that I thought was interesting was about Board-Staff communication at staff levels BELOW the CEO. The first reaction focused on the danger of the Board communicating with staff below the CEO level. The story is common: Board members contacting staff "willy-nilly" creating too much work for staff and confusing priorities (who do I work for?).

I shared a bit of an opposite example from a client I had, however, where in order to focus conversation, they ended up with all communication flowing through the CEO. Not only can this create a bottleneck, but it becomes a real problem when the senior staff has trust issues with the CEO! They begin to wonder if he or she is really giving them the whole story about what the Board is trying to communicate, and a lot goes down hill from there. The panelists suggested encouraging Board-senior staff communication, but also creating clear structures for that communication to happen.

Another interesting point (that I tweeted about) was about the issue of "personal agendas." One of the CEOs, when she sits down and has her initial conversations with an incoming Board chair, explicitly talks about what that person’s personal agenda is. This might raise a few eyebrows—we’re not supposed to have personal agendas, right? That’s what we complain about: Board members with their personal agendas.

But her point was compelling: what person seeks to become the Chair of a Board of Directors unless they have some kind of personal agenda?! It doesn’t have to be an evil, take-over-the-world agenda. But it does seem foolish to me to pretend that there aren’t personal motivations and personal interests being served. When you can talk about them only, then you can manage them and make sure they don’t interfere any way with that person doing an effective job as chair.

Towards the end, one staff member asked for help with a specific situation: the incoming chair (and the one next in line after that) seem to be micromanagers. Specifically, the new chair seems to be very selective with where he sends email, not copying this person (the COO) on emails to the CEO, and sometimes vice versa, being very focused, and interfering with the staff’s ability to coordinate things. One person in the group suggested contacting the board chair’s secretary and enlisting his or her support in expanding the communication. The answer: this board chair (although the CEO of a sizeable company) doesn’t have an assistant (further evidence of his micromanaging tendencies).

I asked the person how specific she had been in giving the new board chair feedback on his behavior. She said they had a more general conversation about staff roles and relationship between the CEO and COO. My advice was to be more specific. Don’t expect them to make the connections themselves. Explain to this guy what the behavior was and the impact is on how things get done. That takes the personal judgment (you are a micromanager) out of it, and that helps.

All in all it was a nice meeting, although I was a bit disappointed in the lack of networking and personal connections. This is part of "EMS Local," which seems designed to offer opportunities for the members of the Executive Management Section to interact on a more personal basis. If that’s true, then we should at least be able to introduce ourselves around the table! Still, I was glad to be there and enjoyed it.


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