How Top Executives Tackle Board Relations

Executives have different takes on executive and board relations, with different communication styles. There is no single way to do this, especially when dealing with a large number of other executives or board members, but there are both some guidelines and techniques that can help.

In terms of getting support for your activity/proposal, there are some things to take into account:

  1. Honoring board hygiene;
  2. Having absolute clarity on requirements;
  3. Clarifying upside for the other party;
  4. Using influence to seal the deal;
  5. Effectively resolving conflicts;

Let’s take a look at each one of these in detail:

Honoring Board Hygiene

These are the fundamentals of your board composition (and the same for your executive team). All successful board relations start with having a proper board composition and culture. If you put people on board that don’t really add value or don’t deserve to be there, they will take down the culture and productivity of the whole board. Likewise, if you don’t set the proper tone in terms of preparation of agendas and materials, then the culture needs to be reformed.

Taking care of the essentials of board composition and etiquette is crucial because, otherwise, anything you might do in one particular meeting isn’t going to help particularly, as it won’t have a long-term effect.

Having Absolute Clarity on Requirements

The first thing to take into account is knowing exactly what you require of the other executive / board members. If you’re just trying to get approval for an initiative, skip to clarifying the upside for them and using influence. If, on the other hand, you need resources from another executive it, be it manpower, sharing of information or other integrations, clarify that right away.

Executives that I coach have a lot of success using a “startup” MVP mentality – start small and build from there. If you need to integrate a new sales mechanism with your existing technology tool, don’t go overboard in trying to channel every single possible data source right away. Plan for a simple integration with the core information and move from there. If you want your compliance department to work more closely with the accounting department, don’t just order an immediate merging of both – start with simple interaction touchpoints and plan to ramp it up as the relationship progresses.

Clarifying the Upside

This one is also natural in executive/board relations. In order for other executives or board members to help, they have to see the value proposition clearly. And when you’re requesting direct involvement or access to their resources, this means not only the upside for the company, it means upside for them personally. This might be in terms of mere recognition or actual profit or value for their departments.

Your value proposition doesn’t have to be great – with proper influence and persuasion, you can get it across anyway. However, it’s good to know what your starting point is, to know whether you should emphasize the actual value proposition more, if it’s great, or the influence to get it approved, if it’s not that good.

Using Influence to Seal the Deal

There are several techniques that you can use to influence the other side to accept your position – all of them part of my framework Kingmaker Influence. For convenience, however, let’s take a look at some of the core techniques and how to apply them in this scenario:

  • Personality X-Ray and establishing identification are two great tools to open the other person up. First, by identifying their combination of The Four Perceived Personalities, you can speak in their language and convince them more easily, while understanding their point of view and establishing empathy will make them warm up much more to you;
  • Eroding convictions. When somebody else has strong opinions and won’t jump on board, you can gently poke hols in their certainty and suggest new alternatives. By requesting empathy – “Tell me more about why you think that“. “Make me understand why you think that“. “What is your experience with that?”, you can make the other person show their cards. Then you can determine an angle of attack by slowly suggesting new alternatives. “I see. So your experiences with corporate innovation were bad in an environment that had a small team and no dedicated resources. Would it be possible, however, that in our case, it’s a completely different scenario, and that this would be highly valuable and profitable?
  • Trapping objections. Many of the executives I work with literally create a list of possible objections, so they can come up with a quick response to each one of them in terms. I consider this an essential part of executive and board relations. Going one step further, you can elicit them and disarm them by pre-empting negative aspects. Starting with things such as “You might think there is no merit to this” or “You might think this is not feasible” will immediately disarm the other person from coming up with those objections themselves. Also, labeling affect and attitudes helps disarm them. “You seem angry“. “You seem like you’re not on board with this“. By pre-empting and identifying negative aspects and verbalising them, you can most of the times defuse them and melt objections;
  • Constricting their options is a great option here as well. Frame the situation as collaborating with you being the right move for progress, profits, shareholder value, and other options as not. Then, all you have to do is use a framed question, such as “How can we make this happen?” to orient their mind towards making it happen, or use prospect theory in your favor by listing them a couple of options where yours is the best, such as “It seems like you have three options: Not be a part of this, and miss out, be a part of this but not fully involved, and achieve bad results, or work closely with me and both share the profits and value added to the company“;
  • Leveraging investment can also work here. If you can obtain small commitments from the other executive here and there, you can ramp up the commitment ladder to involve them more and more. In the corporate world, investment escalation is very frequent – once somebody has started something, the inertia will make them keep investing until it either ends very well or very bad. If you can start by asking small favors to support this activity or project, unless something radical happens, you can keep escalating your requests;

Effectively Resolving Conflicts

As a short mention, conflict resolution can also be useful for board relationships when conflict does happen. I usually define a very simple three-step process for conflict resolution, the ETC model:

  1. Apply Empathy;
  2. Separate Task Conflict from Relationship Conflict;
  3. Reinforce alignment with Culture and/or Candor;

In short, the empathy stage is about establishing identification and understanding of the other person. Active listening and asking good questions usually achieves this. Then, separating task from relationship conflict. In other words, you have a problem with the idea, not the person. This helps de-escalate and make it not personal. Then, reinforcing with your company culture and being candid. Phrasing the conflict as something that is just part of the honesty the company culture displays and also being candid, a casual friendly comment for their best interest.

Conclusion: Towards Influence for Executive and Board Relations

Tackling board relations is not always an easy task, and the seasoned executive must be used to dealing with different personality types with different goals, stating clear value propositions and applying a layer of empathy and influence to convince the other person to support their cause.

Interesting articles on board composition and relations include the article 5 Ways to Improve Your Relationship with the Board and the Forbes article Three Essentials for a Successful CEO and Board Chair Relationship.

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