The Pillars of CEO-Board Communication

By Stuart R. Levine


Board-Management Relations Executive Talent Management Private Company Governance Online Article

Having served on private and public company boards alike, it is obvious that there are different benefits to each structure. However, one best practice transcends company type and size: clear CEO-board communication. But private company boards tend to be populated by family members and close-knit advisors. This reality should not interfere with direct communication.

Experience dictates that effective CEOs reach out to every member of the board prior to actual board meetings. This effort has multiple benefits. It provides an opportunity for the CEO to hear directly from directors and understand any questions the directors have regarding the board book and the contents within. This eliminates distractions and ensures effective utilization of time in board meetings. Materials should be distributed at least five days before a board meeting to foster this critical dialogue and allow the CEO time to prepare responses to concerns expressed.

One of the board’s primary responsibilities—to approve and oversee the implementation of strategy, clarity, and logic—dictates the creation of a CEO dashboard. A well-constructed and agreed upon dashboard allows CEOs to focus on the priorities that should be shared with the board on a regular basis and links all communications to the dashboard priorities and initiatives. This eliminates wasted energy and inefficient use of time and capital.

Geopolitical and public policy trends can also be better captured and understood through clear and regular CEO and board communication. At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, the California government started to adjust the state’s policies for cargo ships depositing goods in its ports. A global CEO shared with me the substantial number of ships their company had at sea waiting to unload at port and the implications this would have for commerce in general. This information was not widely publicized and shifted my strategic thinking.

Additionally, bringing into board meetings appropriate senior business executives who are prepared to respond to questions in their areas of expertise can strengthen the culture of an organization. This effort enables more focused conversations and establishes a productive relationship between board members and company leadership. The CEO has an important responsibility to develop succession candidates throughout the organization. Appearing at board meetings requires focused preparation from business leaders and can have a serious, consequential impact on leaders’ careers. Board-management interactions provide insights into the capacity of these leaders to communicate clearly and strategically at an extremely high level.

Years ago, I was the lead director of a Nasdaq-listed company. A business unit president was invited to present data on regional market penetration. He had fifty slides to share with the board in an allotted 20-minute period. The lights were dimmed so that we could see the screen and half the board went to sleep. The type was also so small that it was impossible to see the data being presented. We went into executive session at the end of the meeting and there was a unanimous feeling that this individual’s presentation and the CEO’s were not useful. What emerged from that meeting was a dedicated effort to ensure that presentations were more considered going forward.

The moral of this story? Solid CEO-board communication engenders excellent board engagement and a culture of trust, stronger leadership development, and global relationships that provide insights into future business trends.

Stuart R. Levine is chair and CEO of Stuart Levine & Associates.