5th April, 2012

Leading the leader

There are a few things I’ve been gobsmacked by since stepping from being a non-profit CEO to consulting.  None more so than the seemingly low number of Chief Executives who are not being properly supervised and developed by their board. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have great supervision (and unfortunate to have practically no supervision) in my career.  When I was supervised well I had meetings for a few hours every six weeks or so, with an annual appraisal.  As my Chair and I got to know each-other we moved from checking on what I was doing (a quick update ticked that box) to chewing over my key challenges.  I was always supported, occasionally challenged but never undermined or micro-managed. 

If your CEO is not being effectively supported by a key representative of your board he or she will never fulfil their potential, either personally or for the organisation as a whole. 

Here are the top four excuses I regularly hear for not supervising a Chief Executive:

1. We haven’t got the time: I get it, you’re busy. You’re spinning enough plates and going to enough meetings without adding another one to schedule, right?  Be honest, are you running around a little like a headless chicken?  And what do you think could help with that?  Some decent supervision could!

2. The CEO is accountable to the board as a whole: The Chief Executive’s update in a board or executive committee meeting is not a forum for supervision.  How can one person be line-managed by a board of say 10 people?  The CEO is likely to have 10 perspectives and feel pulled in several directions.  In circumstances like this I’ve also seen board meetings focus far too much on operational detail with very little attention to strategic direction.  The board, collectively, stewards the organisation and sets its strategy; the supervision of the CEO, while the responsibility of the board, should be delegated to one Trustee.

3. The Chair isn’t the managerial type:  I have two solutions: find someone else on your board who is (the CEO doesn’t have to be supervised by the Chair, providing there is excellent three-way communication between the Chair, CEO and Supervisor) or identify this as one of the biggest skills gaps on your board and find someone who can fit that role.

4. The CEO has an external mentor: Great; I hope they find it useful.  So how does your board monitor the CEO’s progress and set objectives?  Surely not through board meetings?  Having a mentor can be a truly performance-transforming investment, but it should be an enhancement to supervision from the board, not a substitute for it.

As a good leader you know that supervising your employees is about more than checking up on what they’re doing; it’s about supporting them, developing their skills and offering an additional perspective.  So why not apply this to the most senior employee?  Is their performance any less critical to the organisation’s success than your other employees’?  I’m guessing not. 

Don’t leave your Chief Executive’s performance to chance or leave them unsupported.  It’s not fair and you won’t get your best performance from them.

I’d love to hear your comments, below, about supervision at the top.


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