Over the past two decades, I’ve worked with an array of boards in multiple capacities—serving as general counsel, secretary, board advisor and board member.
In my current role as general counsel and head of NACD’s Board Advisory Services, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel and facilitate board evaluations for companies ranging from large family-run businesses to the top of the Fortune 500. Over the years, I’ve concluded: no board evaluation is truly holistic without some form of feedback from senior management.
The management team’s participation in the evaluation process creates a critical 360° view that often brings to light factors that are limiting the board’s ability to operate at peak performance. This approach can naturally raise some very sensitive issues between executives and directors. Yet my belief that anonymous, candid input from the management team is essential to a complete and credible evaluation remains constant.
The insights and information that the c-suite and beyond provide are invaluable. Not only does the input enhance the quality and validity of the evaluation, it typically uncovers information that will directly lead to concrete action steps to improve alignment between the board and senior management.
There are a couple of important dynamics that the evaluation process commonly uncovers:
Talent vs. Engagement
- In more cases than not, management teams believe they have strong assets on the board. Yet they often find that some very qualified directors are not as engaged as they could be. The company is not fully benefiting from the wisdom and unique experience these talented advisors bring to the table.
- Often, management sees—and reports to my team—that one or two strong personalities on the board dominate meetings, limiting the opportunity for others to contribute.
Tactics vs. Strategy
- Many directors tend to drill down into tactical issues, moving away from the real responsibility of the board to provide strategic direction. The board may not realize how serious the issue is until the management team reveals the extent to which that misplaced focus hinders their ability to get things done.
- Conversely, boards often find that it’s the management team that spends too much of the meeting focused on operational minutiae, trapping them in “PowerPoint hell.” With limited time for the full board to meet, the agenda should be devoted to the most critical strategic opportunities and risks facing the company. Operational and tactical issues should be reserved for the committees.
- Interestingly, we’ve often found that the reason for this is that management tends to drive meeting agendas, which naturally results in a focus on operational issues. In most cases, management would welcome collaboration with the board on defining the agenda to ensure the board’s time is devoted to strategic discussion and risk oversight.
We recognize that giving management a voice in a board evaluation process can be extremely sensitive for both the board and management. To facilitate the most valuable and practicable outcomes from board evaluations, NACD’s approach ensures that feedback is completely anonymous with no risk of attribution. Our approach of weaving the results into strategic education lowers defensive barriers, enabling the “ah-ha moments” that focus the entire process on solutions rather than criticism.
Unless c-suite-boardroom disconnects are brought to light, they can fester and potentially jeopardize the organizational mission. Done right, the management team’s involvement in board evaluation clarifies expectations and fosters a healthier collaborative environment.
My experience has led me to conclude that senior management has a sincere desire to capitalize on the wisdom, leadership and unique business experience of each and every board member. By involving the management team in the evaluation process, boards capitalize on management’s expertise in the same way. Result: the organization’s full intellectual capital is leveraged for the collective benefit.