This article was originally published in Forbes on May 5, 2017.
Want to make your business sustainable? Start by developing strong leaders who can anticipate and respond to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment in which we operate. One practical technique is to create meaningful opportunities for your board of directors to interact with current (and future) leaders.
Most organizations have spent little energy on this leadership development strategy — it is occasionally considered in the context of succession planning, but even succession planning is given little attention by most boards. According to a study by Ernst & Young, boards spend fewer than two hours per year on succession planning-related matters. I investigated how companies were using their boards of directors to develop leaders and found little evidence. One thing I did find: a study of high-performing organizations uncovering that just 21% used board exposure to accelerate employees on the path to leadership.
I surveyed HR leaders from 21 organizations of various sizes and industries in my network to understand the practices they use to introduce their high potential leaders to their boards. I found that while 65% share talent review data with their boards – including succession plans and biographies for high potentials – only 15% arrange for some kind of meeting between high potentials and the board.
Why is this practical leadership development technique overlooked? Perhaps it's because human resources leaders aren’t sure how to structure interactions between their boards and key leaders in a way that is meaningful.
First, you need to define "key leaders." This will be different for different organizations. If your most important leadership development priority is CEO succession, you might limit to those on the CEO succession plan. If you’re trying to develop a pipeline of future leaders who can form your top team, you should look one level down. In either case, you should limit the population to those who you think have the ability and interest to move to the next level.
Next, put leadership development on the board agenda. Before you can engage your board with your key leaders, you need to raise the topic with them. Share your desire to enlist them in developing key leaders, and solicit their feedback. Set the expectation that they’ll participate in discussions with key leaders and that they will provide feedback on those leaders.
Then, identify the methods you’ll use to create meaningful interactions between your board and your key leaders. Consider the following:
1. Invite key leaders to present at board meetings. Often, CEOs keep board meeting attendance to an extremely narrow group. This prevents the board from learning firsthand about leaders lower in the organization. It also eliminates a great development tool for up-and-coming leaders. Organize speakers around the board’s existing agenda to ensure content is meaningful and discussions are real. For each topic, consider whether a key leader from the organization could provide information to the board. Give the board information about the key leader prior to the meeting, and solicit their feedback afterward. Assign one member of the executive team (the CEO, HR, or the individual’s boss) to share any developmental feedback from the board with the key leader.
2. Enlist key leaders in new board member onboarding. Most companies already invest time onboarding new board members. Restructure this to allow key leaders to share information about the business with new board members. You could arrange for several key leaders to discuss different topics with each new board member, or assign one key leader to review all topics and serve as an ongoing resource for each new board member.
3. Design board meetings around opportunities to interact with key leaders. Perhaps you’ll hold a board meeting in a different location so board members can see a new facility and have dinner with key leaders from that location. You should provide the board bios for the key leaders (and vice versa) so everyone is prepared to make the most of the interaction.
4. Create a thoughtful, short-term mentoring relationship between a board member and a key leader. This works best when you have identified a specific development need in one of your key leaders (comfort with a new business model or geography) and a strength in one of your board members. Speak to each person individually and share the objectives and suggested timeframe for the interaction. Depending on the individuals involved, you may want to schedule the meetings and provide your key leader with some proposed talking points to help get the conversation flowing.
I am often asked about leadership development programs with “extracurricular” projects that culminate in presentations to the board of directors. I’m not in favor of these. In most cases, they create a lot of work for high performing leaders (most of whom probably have more work than they can do already) and rarely translate into real opportunities for the business.
Most boards already have responsibility for CEO succession planning, but few are engaged in developing key leaders lower in the organization. Boards can be valuable participants in leadership development. The key is thoughtful planning to ensure the approach is consistent with the culture and tenor of the board.