1. Don’t keep negative news to yourself
Bad or unexpected things can and will happen. Boards consisting of experienced previous and current senior executives understand this reality. Professional board members would like you to bring bad news of strategic importance to the table as soon as possible. If you wait or, even worse, try to hide it, you are putting yourself in a very vulnerable position, and the chances of losing the board’s trust are high.
2. Don’t pretend that you have figured everything out
Being a senior executive is demanding. The board has chosen you to manage the company because they believe you are qualified, not because they think it will be easy. Bring the key strategic questions and the dilemmas you ponder to the board. Board members appreciate feeling trusted by the senior executives and being invited to contribute with their knowledge and experience. We once observed a board meeting where the chief innovation officer told the board that nothing kept him awake at night. He never regained the board’s confidence.
3. Ensure you spend the board’s time on what matters most
Be thoughtful and spend sufficient time when drafting the suggested board agenda. It is very easy to copy the agenda of your predecessor. Don’t. Avoid spending the board’s time presenting and repeating (typically financial) historical data already distributed to them. Instead, allocate time for potential questions about the information and, if possible, put it at the end of the agenda. The most important matters for the company's long-term success should go first. Ideally, formulate it as key strategic questions for the board and senior executives to discuss. Be clear about whether a point is for discussion and decision or for sounding board discussion only. The latter means that the senior executives would like to pick the brains of the non-executives without having them conclude or decide.
4. Be mindful of your framing
Unless it is a trivial or “housekeeping” issue, do not bring material to the board where it is clear that all you want them to do is approve. Board members are smart and prefer not to be merely presented to. Consider how you articulate what you would like the board to consider. Ensure you do not use a frame that is too narrow or limit the board’s options. A well-laid-out decision structure, including clearly identifying the real problem, its implications, and the alternatives, will pave the way for a robust, open discussion and might be paramount for your company’s success or fiasco.
5. Make use of the board members' competencies in between meetings
More often than not, you will have board members who have been recruited for their experience and relevance. Do not hesitate to ask them for help when a specific challenge occurs, and you perceive one or two have particular competence. Board members love to feel at use. Moreover, you are mutually interested in doing what is best for the company. A positive side effect is getting to know each other better and deepening the relationship. Remember, a board member should not be seen as an enemy but a partner.