Richard Hewson explains how the subtleties of human comfort zones can upset the relationship between CEOs and boards.

    Discomfort zone

    Is the relationshipbetween your board and your CEO as effective as you would want? When the board and the executives of an organisation are not working together as effectively as they could be, the consequences radiate throughout the organisation’s people, practices, culture and results. Yet, despite the apparent importance of the board/executive relationship and the capabilities of the directors and executives involved, tension between these key stakeholders is one of the most common challenges and complaints voiced by directors and executives alike.

    The literature on how CEO and boards can work well together is plentiful. It is easy to say that people need to listen, to be open and honest, trusting and so on. Sounds simple? Well, if it is so simple why do we see so many examples of less than optimum relationships between CEOs and their boards?

    We believe the answer lies in the subtleties of human comfort zones.

    Take for example a CEO who was faced with the challenge of convincing the board to adopt a strategy he wanted to implement. Even though the CEO knew that the best thing to do was to listen to the issues and interests of each of the directors, in those moments of having to listen to the directors’ points of view on governance, strategy and so on, the CEO felt he was not in control of the business and on the receiving end of their advice. Although the CEO knew it was better to listen, he nevertheless went ahead and told the board what they ‘should be doing’.

    In this situation, the CEO was outside of his comfort zone and not feeling in control. He acted to regain his feeling of being in control by telling the board what to do.

    For this particular CEO to become more effective, it was necessary for him to see what he could do better and to be willing to feel not in control of his business. When he was able to ‘will’ himself to do this, he actually listened. As a result of him listening to the board members, he was able to respond more calmly and incorporate their views into his strategy. This meant the directors were more open to be influenced by his ideas and eventually the strategy was implemented.

    When a CEO or board member becomes aware of their own personal comfort zones, they can then gain access to all their capabilities to handle situations and people more effectively, thereby building more productive working relationships. When people are willing to push through their comfort zones, they can then start to use what they often knew were more effective methods and approaches.

    Shown below are some common comfort zones that have helped CEOs build better relationships with their boards, once broken through.

    Comfort zone strategies

    Based on our experience in coaching executives, the keys to building more effective relationships between the CEO and board is more than just following a procedure or reading the latest communications theory. The following may not be your traditional suggestions for building better board/executive relationships, but our experience shows that they do work.

    Notice when you feel even slightly uncomfortable in your interactions. Check if your subsequent behaviour is less than optimally effective.

    Determine what type of discomfort you are experiencing (see Common Comfort Zones table).

    Take responsibility for how resisting that discomfort may have led you to react with less effective behaviours that have negatively impacted relationships.

    Commit to be willing to push through your personal comfort zone(s) and take the more effective actions you know are required by the situation.

    Persevere when your early attempts at more effective behaviours are not perfect. Your determination will ultimately give you mastery over a wider repertoire for handling your relationships.

    Practical CEO handling techniques

    When directors understand the vital role that comfort zones play in executive and board performance it becomes clear that directors can play a crucial role in ensuring the comfort zones of executives do not negatively impact leadership and organisational performance.

    The key to supporting an executive to break through even subtle comfort zones is to ask questions that engage the individual to recognise what it is they are resisting, how it’s limiting them and the organisation, and how they can operate more effectively.

    The questions listed to the right can be used by directors to engage their executives with the real issues facing them and their organisations. The outcome is often raised responsibility, more open and honest communication, superior financial and organisation results and more fulfilling board-executive relationships.

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