First-time CEOs: heed this advice on leading your board.

Author:Atkins, Betsy

Board members want to participate and contribute. It's incumbent on you to lead them to the right subjects in the right way.

Here are a few "rules of the road" in constructing and leading your board. Boards are like any other group in that they perform best when they are well led (as contrasted with "managed"--especially managed to death by PowerPoint.)

* Set the Tone: To maximize your board's effectiveness, you need to help them by setting the right tone as CEO. First, you will be well served if you make it a part of your standard cadence to call each board member a week or so before the board meeting. These are brief 10-minute calls just to see what's on their mind as issues or topics. If there is a big concern a member has, you have the opportunity to diffuse it rather than be ambushed in the meeting.

* CEO Letter: One idea I have seen work well is to consider writing a brief one- to two-page letter to the board a few days before the meeting. This helps to focus the board on the key points.

* State of the Union: A best practice I've seen is that the CEO starts each board meeting with a mini-"state of the union" soliloquy. This has the benefit of reinforcing your role as CEO and leader, and focuses the board on the key topics of the board meeting.

* 'The Board Eats What You Serve Them': Specifically, when you don't identify a topic you are seeking input/guidance on, then the board will just jump in and can take the discussion down tangents that are less productive. Boards are made up of smart, motivated people who want to make a contribution. It's incumbent on you to lead them to the right subjects.

Board members want to participate and contribute. The best way to engage your board and to get value out of their experience is to identify the strategic subjects (1-3) where you specifically seek their input. For example, you might raise a significant topic like, "When and where should we expand to new international geographies?" or "Should we take a fork in a product road map decision?" In each example, you ought to have a management recommendation and seek the board's input.

* Each Director Should Take the Hippocratic Oath of 'Do No Harm To the Patient': The board's role is oversight, not overstep. New board members sometimes have a learning curve on this. Your chairman or lead independent director should help guide new board members on the correct level of engagement--what's helpful, what's not. You will do well if you give the feedback to your chair...

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