What Boards Can Do To Build a Better CEO

Last Updated May 17, 2011 3:31 PM EDT

How can CEOs get better at their jobs? One way is to tap into the high-wattage executive experience that sits on their board of directors. Unfortunately, this kind of mentoring and critical feedback is rarer than it should be.

That's the message from Harvard Business School professor Stephen Kaufman, former CEO of Arrow Electronics, who has seen and been on a number of boards. Many directors are reluctant to be too critical of a CEO's management performance because boards can become quite chummy and comfortable. So most interaction between board members and the CEO comes at quarterly or annual meetings, which aren't a real good indicator of CEO management style, he says.

"I can give great PowerPoint presentations, but that doesn't tell people whether I'm Attila the Hun or a New Age Leader, or if I create a culture of fear, a culture that accepts and respects dissent, or a culture of energy and enthusiasm," Kaufman tells HBS Working Knowledge writer Carmen Nobel. "A board sees the CEO at highly structured -- and possibly well-rehearsed -- board meetings, at a few dinners and perhaps at an annual golf outing. That doesn't tell the board whether the CEO is a listener or a lecturer, an autocrat or a democrat, or a fan of yes-men. But those are the things you need to need to know if you want to give a CEO meaningful counsel."

He says the goal of a board's oversight of CEO performance should be more than just arriving as just compensation. Directors also should help a good CEO become a great CEO. Kaufman's ideas to get there include:

  • Hire an outside recruiter to attract independent directors who aren't connected to the CEO or other board members.
  • Require independent directors to discuss the CEO's performance with company staffers at multiple levels of management. Questions to ask include, Are employees engaged and enthusiastic? Are the really smart engineers and best salespeople looking for new jobs? Are the high-potential, next-generation senior managers energized and growing?
  • Direct the company to conduct regular, anonymous surveys about employee engagement and the company culture, and then ask that the data be shared with the board in raw form.
Read the entire article, Building a Better Board.

Have you served on a board? What was your experience?

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(Photo by Flickr user euthman, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.