At the end of my first year serving as Principal of a school, I met up for breakfast with someone who was very instrumental in developing school leadership talent, and had founded the graduate level program in educational administration that I had attended. He had also been a board chair for multiple area schools. I had asked to meet with him so I could let him enjoy the fruits of his labor (his graduate program had helped me secure my leadership position) while also gleaning from his wisdom and experience as I planned for Year 2.
As we ate, we talked about the various challenges and successes of the previous year. At one point the topic shifted to the school board. It was then that he looked me straight in the eye and emphatically said, “You need to own your board.” By that he meant that I needed to develop them and their thinking in a way that would position them squarely behind me to advance my agenda.
Besides for standard school-related conversation about organizational needs, he suggested that I begin the process of developing personal connections with as many individual board members as possible. That included “get to know you” meetings at Starbucks but also something deeper, such as establishing a learning partnership with key board members. (In our community, that meant studying Torah together. In other settings, it may be a different topic of common interest.) I took his advice to heart, and set up a weekly study arrangement with two members of the board’s executive committee. Those study sessions built a stronger relationship and deepened trust.
It goes without saying that the chief executive must make board relations a top priority. While board function and impact range significantly between companies and organizations, it is the board’s responsibility, at the minimum, to evaluate you and your work in advancing the organization. (They are also typically tasked with fiduciary oversight and maintenance of the mission.) As with any evaluative process, you want to position yourself on the right side of things, interpersonally and in terms of establishing an agreed-to and properly supported agenda.
There are a few other ways that new leaders can ingratiate themselves with key board members and begin the process of effective cultivation.
- Get to know them well – Find out what each board member does, professionally and otherwise. What are their passions? What other things do they commit personal time to? Learn what you can about their personal lives and families. The more that you get to know them personally, the more you can connect with them about their deepest and most sacred feelings and beliefs.
- Learn their biases – Ask them about their general feelings about the organization. Is it something that they are proud to be associated with? What are its greatest strengths and biggest opportunities? Discuss their past experiences with your predecessor(s) and with other board members. Ask them about their top issues with the current company performance and culture.
- Lay out your plan – Develop a 90-100 day plan that includes action steps and tangible deliverables. Get feedback on the plan and revise as needed. Then, monitor your progress against the plan and report using that as your basis. If you meet or exceed expectations, wonderful. If not, be willing to evaluate that and explain why you think that things have not progressed the way that you thought they would. Offer the board a modified plan as warranted. The more that you hold yourself accountable, the more respect and latitude you will garner.
- Communicate early and often – Develop and maintain a regular communication schedule with your board. Update them on developments and don’t hide concerns. Be upright, clear, and responsive. Over-communicate at first so the board knows that you “get it” and are on top of things. Then, with the input and approval from the board chair, begin the process of weaning back a bit on the frequency and comprehensiveness of your updates.
- Start bonding – Where appropriate, invite board members to your home or a location of common interest to interact socially. Let them see another side of you and vice versa. Also consider team building activities that will force you to work together with them towards various outcomes.
All of these experiences will build equity and help them see you as more than a distant employee that they have hired to direct their company. And if any blowback reaches them from constituents, they will much likelier cover your back and give you the benefit of the doubt, than if you let things run their natural course.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.