4 Rules of CEO Survival with Boards

Politics are everywhere.  There are office politics, industry politics, association politics, and if you work for a Board of Directors, Board politics.

Walking on Egg Shells

Walking on Egg Shells

My career included working for a Board of Directors for over 22 years, in charge of a not-for-profit Destination Marketing Organization (DMO).  Since our funding was also tied to an industry (tourism and hospitality) as well as being sanctioned and collected by local government in the form of lodging taxes, I learned very quickly about the many types of politics.

I learned 4 rules that can help you survive in situations fraught with politics.  Some of them are practices you can do or avoid doing.  With the others, you just have to be aware that they exist:

1.  If “they” want something bad enough including your butt, they’ll find a way to get it.
“They” in this case consists of anyone to whom you or your organization report.  Perceptions and opinions can change almost instantly and you need to be on your guard because, as the person in charge, you’re the most vulnerable.  Look at any athletic team:  When the win/loss record goes south, they fire the coach, not the players.

2.  Friends come and friends go but enemies accumulate.
It’s amazing how true this item can seem.  If you’re breaking new ground, making things happen, or “boldly going where no one has gone before,” you’re going to make a few enemies.  Keep track of them and always try to convert them to friends.  Lacking that, do what you can to neutralize their influence.

3.  Any project worth doing and worth doing well is going to tick someone off.
This is related to #2.  Not everyone is going to like every idea or project you undertake.  Ask yourself:  “Who’s going to oppose this?”  Then, include them.  Listen to them.  You may wind up agreeing or just agreeing to disagree.  But you won’t have ambushed them.

4.  It’s not your money; it’s not your organization.
This is the one that kills more of us than any other.  After awhile it’s easy to begin resenting that the Board ultimately controls policy.  After all, they only show up once a month for a meeting.  Hey, you’re there all the time, right?  Who are they to tell you what to do?

Bye, baby.  Your successor will pick up the pieces because you forgot that you don’t own the place.  You run it and you serve at the Board’s discretion.  That doesn’t mean you have to turn into a toady.  You can serve and still keep your self-respect.  It’s called “professionalism.”

Frequently when you’re dealing in political or Board situations, the best gift you can have (or cultivate) is a finely-tuned inner radar:  That sense that tells you when, as Obi-Wan Kenobi put it, “there’s a disturbance in the force.”  Frequently, when friends of mine got fired unexpectedly, there were signals somewhere that they either missed or ignored.

I enjoyed working for my Board.  They were open-minded and loyal to the organization, and they were nice people to boot.  But I always adhered to these rules.  Consequently, I had a great career working with them.  Additionally, I was able to leave on my own timing, at my own choice, and everyone still liked each other.


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