How to Cope With an Overbearing Board of Directors

You didn’t work as diligently as you have to be second guessed. When you finally earned your position as CEO, you thought distrusting superiors and colleagues would become a relic of your early career.

That you would finally be the ultimate boss, with the final word on all important matters.

Then you met your board of directors. And over time, you’ve learned that working with people who don’t trust you is still the most frustrating aspect of your job.

If even one member of the board doubts your judgement or ability, running your company can turn into a strenuous battle for respect that spreads beyond the board to your larger company culture. That’s why it’s crucial to avoid turning your boardroom into a battleground.

In working with dozens of successful CEOs and entrepreneurs, we’ve seen that the best board-CEO relationships aren’t as much about answering to the members, as they are about collaborating with them as a team of leaders in different areas.

Not all board members make it easy to work with them as equals – some will be outright overbearing. Winning their trust enough to lead more independently may be a business project in itself. But as a high achieving entrepreneur, it’s one you’ll need to take on.

If you do ever find a board member trying to control you, micromanaging people, or otherwise making your work harder, keep these crucial steps in mind. They’ll help you transform the relationship into one that makes everyone’s responsibilities easier.

Bring Data to Back Up Opinions

First of all, if your board ever mistrusts you, bring along something they can’t question as easily: hard facts. Whenever executives are skeptical of a decision or concern, facts clarify the situation better than feelings.

Mark Moses, Founding Partner at CEO Coaching International, has previously noted that numbers help clear up biases and emotions: “While your chairman may love the longtime head of sales, whom you know needs to be replaced, failed targets are hard to argue with. Tactfully remind the board of your shared key objectives and how they’re not being met.

You might say something like, ‘Look, you said these targets are important to you. We can’t achieve them as long as this person is on my team, so do you want to keep the existing team intact or do you want to go for these targets? Your choice, executive chairman.'”

Especially in a room like a board meeting, where each person there is an expert in their own right, multiple people will have strong and valid opinions. However, those opinions might be clouded by lack of context or insight, as well as personal biases and experiences.

But unlike opinions, they cannot argue with numbers.

Send Frequent Updates to Continue Important Dialogues

Facts and hard numbers will help you in the midst of a meeting or discussion. But especially when dealing with a difficult colleague, trust isn’t only won in the boardroom. Important strides must be taken in between meetings as well.

Making a habit of communicating frequently with updates can help a great deal, and is likely more simple than you think. Even a monthly, templated email update is a start. Establishing this regular schedule and system for reports will cut down on frequent requests for updates and information, while keeping everyone on the same page.

Len Jordan, venture partner at Madrona Venture Group, recommends using email to deliver straightforward information so you can focus on more complicated matters in-person:

“I love short (above the fold) weekly email updates from CEOs on key progress points (product development, hiring, revenue, key partnerships, etc.), but it’s OK if they are less frequent (coming every other week, or once a month). But bad news should travel fast—this includes losing a key customer, a key engineer quitting, etc.”

Additionally, a habit like this helps create a culture of accountability and proactivity, along with setting an example for the rest of the company. This bit of additional effort on your part in sending the weekly updates, also makes it easier for board members to act swiftly and smartly in the face of any difficult decisions.

When a problem does arise that needs to travel fast, as Jordan puts it, your board members will already know all the background information needed to understand the situation, as they’ve been receiving updates as it’s unfolded.

Establishing a regular update or check-in schedule will also improve any conflicts that arise from lack of communication, which happens all too well in a room of several busy and powerful people.

Set Firm Boundaries and Expectations for Board Members

Suppose you’re communicating regularly and proactively with your board members, backing up feelings with facts, and establishing a culture of accountability and trust. If a board member is still overstepping, it’s time to address the problem directly with a discussion boundaries and expectations.

The sooner you discuss boundaries and expectations for board members, both official and unofficial, the sooner you can be assured they know their roles are clear and how best to assist the company.

This can be especially important when you have board members that are used to being the boss or leader in other business endeavors or situations. Taking the lead might simply come naturally to them, and they need guidelines to them stay in their own lane for this position.

And as CEO, it’s up to you to start the conversation. All parties involved need to be clear on what they need, what they want, and what they’re willing to offer. Without these fundamental guidelines in place, further progress may not be stable or long-lasting.

An overbearing and mistrusting board of directors can sabotage your company, even when they want to see it succeed. But by establishing new boundaries and habits, you’ll be able to save their good intentions while correcting (or at least improving) their bad behavior.

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