Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

What do C level officers do? 18: Chief Executive Officers and Presidents 4

Posted in career development, HR and personnel, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on February 19, 2015

This is my 18th posting to a series on what C level officers of a business or organization do, that specifically emerge as job requirements for the senior leadership of an organization (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 376 and following for Parts 1-17.)

I have been discussing Chief Executive Officer (CEO) leadership and management over the course of the past three installments to this series, there primarily focusing on complicating scenarios that do arise and that make this most senior level of overall business management a lot more challenging. My reason for focusing on these challenges here is two-fold. First, anyone with basic reliable management and leadership skills can, for the most part, get by on them alone – and certainly when everything is running smoothly and without complications, and when everyone else involved in that business is supportively contributing to making success happen. There are always learning curve opportunities and new senior executives can always find opportunity to develop their skills at that. But this point holds when the manager in question has learned from hands-on experience how to manage and lead in general, and that is why startup founders can and do succeed and even if they arrive at this job without prior C level experience.

Complications and deviations from the simplest scenario that I outlined towards the top of Part 15 call for more expertise and experience-based skills, and in both management skills per se and in communications and negotiations skills in particular. And resolving these complications can call on specific change management skills too.

And I add as a second basic reason for why I focus on the complications of CEO leadership here, that I do so because I have been writing on an ongoing basis about leadership at the top of an organization per se, from a more general best practices perspective, in a variety of contexts in this blog already (see for example my postings with the word “leadership” in their title as can be found in my Business Strategy and Operations directory and its Page 2 and Page 3 continuations, and at HR and Personnel – and also see executive and senior management oriented series in my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development and its continuation pages.) I address the challenges and opportunities of more normal business leadership contexts in those postings, series and directories already.

I continue this portion of this series here, with discussion of a third leadership challenge and of best practices approaches to more effectively addressing it: leading a business, and particularly one that is facing a need for real change, when the board of directors in place cannot or at least will not contribute positively to that effort. Note: I initially raised the specter of this scenario as the third entry in a four challenge list in Part 15, where I assumed as a starting point for it that the business in question is hobbled by:

• An alternative type of board of directors to that of my simplest case scenario as briefly outlined in that posting (e.g. a ruggedly independent board, to use the terminology of my boards of directors taxonomy), and with all of the potential for conflicts of leadership authority that this can create.

To clarify what this means, the simplest case baseline scenario assumed what I call a strategically aligned board: “a functionally effective board that actively seeks to work constructively with their CEO for the good of the business organization as a whole, and without overriding personal agendas in this.” A ruggedly independent board is anything but that – driven by personal agendas and by distrust, and both towards the CEO and others in their senior executive team and often towards fellow board members as well. In that, ruggedly independent boards are usually self-divided into competing cliques.

• Why does this matter, when it is the job of the Chief Executive Officer to hands-on run the business, and as the senior-most stakeholder-owner of overall business strategy for the business?
• The board of directors in most cases formally hires the CEO, except perhaps most notably where the CEO is also the majority or even exclusive owner of record of the business as a whole. When a CEO is brought in from the outside and hired, it is usually the board that formally does this.
• And the board is in just as much of a position to dismiss a CEO and replace them if that officer in place loses their confidence and support, and certainly if they were brought in as a new hire in the first place.
• I write of the strategically aligned board as one that actively supports their CEO but with understanding and judgment – not simply as a rubber stamp to whatever the CEO wants or wishes. And I write of that type of board influencing and advising, and not micromanaging according to their own perhaps more self-serving agendas. The ruggedly independent board, by comparison, in effect competes with their CEO and particularly where the business is most in need of more unified overall leadership.
• The challenge that I introduce here can be far more serious and far more difficult to effectively address than would hold for my earlier problem scenario postings: Part 16 and Part 17 with their versions of what can be seen as divided leadership.
• That observation tends to hold true as a more general rule, if for no other reasons than that fewer competing voices have to be addressed and negotiated with in those earlier challenge scenarios than in this one. And the numbers of issues that can become flashpoints from divided leadership in those earlier-discussed scenarios tend to be more limited too, and more predictable as well.

And this brings me to the crux of this posting, with an essential question. If you find yourself in the senior-most leadership position of a business by title and with ultimate responsibility for its success or failure, and you find yourself facing a recurringly interfering and at times hostile board of this type that is limiting your authority to meet your responsibilities, what can and should you do to at least attempt to defuse this situation?

• Knowledge is the key here. You need to more fully understand your business and its history and the members of this board and their histories, and certainly their histories with that business. And you need to understand how this type of board of directors pattern developed there, and how it has functioned as such.
• Sometimes a board can shift into this pattern when a dominatingly controlling CEO leaves, who had pushed their board and its members into more of a blindly obedient rubber stamp role (see my boards of directors taxonomy posting for a discussion of the rubber stamp board.) When members of a board who have felt themselves to be unduly constrained, have an opportunity to start expressing their own opinions and to make their own decisions, they can shift towards doing so forcefully.
• Sometimes a board can shift into this ruggedly independent mode as a consequence of frustration, as its members see poor decisions being made and with all of the consequences that would be expected from them. And when a sufficient level of dissatisfaction has been reached from this, they might reach a point where any golden parachute clauses in their initial hiring contract for that CEO and other impediments to their dismissing them might seem acceptable in comparison with the costs of leaving that executive in place. When a board becomes ruggedly independent from frustration with their CEO and the senior executive team in general, it is likely they will carry at least some of this forward through any executive leadership transition, and most likely a lot of it over when bringing in a new replacement CEO, at least until they develop confidence in that new leader to do better.
• Sometimes, it is important to add, board members are strong-willed and opinionated as a matter of personality, and of the mind that their judgments are always best – and the only ones that are acceptable. And depending on how and why they are on that board, it might be all but impossible to remove them and even if they are ruggedly obstreperous in all that they do there. My point with this and the preceding two bullet points of this list is that boards can become ruggedly independent for a variety of reasons, some of which can be quite understandable. The question here is one of what a new hire CEO can do to bring their board around so they can work with them more effectively, and particularly when that is most important: at times of change and uncertainty and of stress for the business as a whole.

That addresses the board as a whole, but boards of directors are comprised of individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own knowledge and experience, their own personalities and their own personal agendas and levels of willingness to work with and accommodate others. Resolving this dilemma to reach a workable sense of mutual accommodation between CEO and board is in practice, all about reaching out to and finding ways to work with individual board members.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment, from that point. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide. I also include this posting in Page 2 of my Human Resources and Personnel directory and also see its Page 1 for related material.

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