Communication is Key to Successful Board/ED Relationships

I learned a lot from my late journalism professor Chuck Stone. One of his favorite quotes was “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” It actually is a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, but Stone used it often in class to drill home his point about journalistic integrity and our responsibility to sort through all sides of a story and ultimately communicate it objectively and clearly.

Turns out that this quote applies to a lot beyond journalism. I have seen this quote come to life in both my family and my profession.

Professionally, I have seen the failure to communicate create supreme tension between staff leadership and boards of directors, especially during a leadership change. As we help organizations navigate an executive transition, we always recommend a meeting very early in the onboarding process between the new CEO and the board to set expectations. We call this a covenant meeting and the purpose is for the board to articulate its expectations of the executive leader AND for the executive leader to describe his/her expectations of the board. Together, they agree upon the expectations for one another.

We then draft a covenant agreement that lists both sets of agreed upon expectations. Individual board members and the CEO endorse the covenant and it becomes the guiding document to which all parties are held accountable. As you can imagine, it is more than just a 15 minute exercise. It takes thoughtful, candid discussion, but it gives everyone a chance to put any concerns out on the table BEFORE there are any real challenges or tensions between the board and the CEO. It is amazing how many issues are overcome before they actually happen.

Unfortunately, what we see all too many times is a failure to communicate. Sometimes boards are so relieved to have their new executive in place that they skip this critical onboarding step. Perhaps the hiring process itself took a lot of time and energy and the board simply feels like that can’t make time for the covenant meeting, or maybe the board just doesn’t think it is necessary.

I guess you already figured out that this is a HUGE mistake. Because hiring the right executive is a time consuming process, it is even more critical to invest in a session to agree upon expectations and get off to a strong start. In the end, you will either invest your time well up front, or you will invest time later trying to sort through misunderstandings and miscommunications, or in the worst case, reopening your executive search.

So please take the words of my beloved professor and the Captain in Cool Hand Luke into account and avoid a communication failure. Whether you are a board member or a new executive leader, take the time to set expectations early on in your new relationship. Ultimately, it will be the difference between personal and organizational success or failure.

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