The Board-Savvy CEO’s Role as Chief Governing Process Designer

By Doug Eadie

The Board Savvy CEO

Board-savvy association CEOs are keenly aware that board members make for more positive and productive governing partners when they are satisfied owners of their governing work and that playing a leading role in designing the board's governing processes is the preeminent means of generating satisfaction and ownership. Wearing the Chief Governing Process Designer hat, the board-savvy CEO works closely with the board's standing committees in: designing practical ways to engage board members in key governing processes, such as planning, performance monitoring, and external relations so as to strengthen both satisfaction and ownership; recommending additional ways to expand board member ownership, for example by regularly rotating standing committee chairs; ensuring that board members are provided ample opportunity for ego satisfaction, through such means as making reports at full board meetings; and looking for opportunities to make the governing experience more interesting and enjoyable.

A Big Jump for Some CEOs
When I was describing the Chief Process Designer role in a presentation to trade association CEOs a couple of months ago, the quizzical looks on several faces and many of the questions that came up vividly brought home that this was not only unfamiliar territory, but also extremely uncomfortable for many CEOs and even threatening for some. I was reminded how different what I was describing was from the traditional role that many, if not most, CEOs played in board committee meetings, such as going over formal documentation (finished staff work) and garnering committee comments, and explaining recommended actions and asking for committee approval, and the like—a formal, somewhat distant (though not necessarily cold or unfriendly) role conveying a definite we-they feel.

In a nutshell, the CEO's traditional job is to convince board committee members to sign off on the recommended actions before them, and if the CEO does her job well, the committee will go along. If the CEO can't get the committee to act, then she'll almost certainly lose some face. Too many of these losses can seriously erode the CEO's credibility, as many of my readers have no doubt learned. Since the role of Chief Process Designer is radically different from the CEO's traditional interaction with committee members, it makes sense to think about what it takes to bring off the new, less familiar role. Experience has taught me that a four-pronged strategy is critical to becoming a successful Chief Process Designer. The CEO should:

  1. Make sure that committee members understand and are firmly committed to their committees doing the process design work that's at the heart of their committees' role as continuous governing improvement vehicles;
  2. Think of himself as the design consultant to the board's committees;
  3. Bring substantial technical knowledge to the design process; and
  4. Play an active facilitator role in committee design sessions.

By the way, wearing my board development consulting hat over the past 25 years, I've learned that board members often don't "get" their committees' role as "continuous governance improvement vehicles," even though it's explicitly mandated in the committees' formal functional descriptions. It's so different from the traditional committee role of reviewing recommendations and reports as part of getting ready for the board business meeting that it very often doesn't penetrate board members' consciousness.

Therefore, thoroughly orienting board committee chairs and members about the need to work with the CEO in process design is a critical step that shouldn't be missed. One really board-savvy association CEO I worked with accordingly took the initiative by meeting with new committee chairs to review the committee process design role in detail, working through a number of practical examples, such as updating the process for board involvement in financial performance monitoring.

Learning To Be a Committee Design Consultant
Of course, even though committee members understand and are committed to carrying out their process design responsibility, the CEO might not be prepared to play a strong supportive role. I was chatting with a tremendously board-savvy CEO a few years ago—the head of a rapidly growing international professional association—about her work with the association board's relatively new standing committees. I had worked closely with her and the governance task force in coming up with the board's new committee structure, and every one of the committee's functional descriptions included the responsibility for designing processes for board involvement in their respective areas. What she shared went something like this.

"You, know, Doug," she confided, "even though we'd discussed this role thoroughly in our governance task force meetings and in your and my follow-up conversations, I worried more about how to help my new committees carry out this responsibility than any other of the dozens of implementation issues we had to deal with. At some point, it occurred to me that your work with the task force gave me a model: I had to think of myself as the primary design consultant to each of the committees."

What she meant was that, like any other capable consultant, she would have to figure out how to support her committee members in going through the design process themselves, and while she'd be at the table as an active participant, she had to be careful not to pre-empt the committee's deliberations by donning her formal CEO hat and telling them the "right" answers. In practice, she realized, this meant that she'd be doing a fair amount of work behind the scenes, which definitely wasn't the traditional approach she'd grown accustomed to over the years. For example, before a committee met to do process design work, she needed to huddle with the committee chair to discuss the steps committee members would need to follow in, for example, updating the board's role in fashioning annual operational priorities and goals, as a prelude to the detailed budget preparation process.

Wearing her consultant hat, she also needed to familiarize herself with advances and best practices in areas her committees would be doing process design work. For example, if she was to help the board's planning committee figure out how to engage board members in leading high-stakes, complex change, she had to do in-depth research on developments in the rapidly evolving field of change management, which, by the way, has moved well beyond traditional, comprehensive strategic planning. Without an in-depth technical understanding of the field she couldn't possibly be an effective consultant to the committee.

Playing the Facilitator Role
Facilitators don't behave like traditional CEOs, which is to say they don't plunk a document down in front of a committee, go through it explaining key points and answering questions, and then call for committee action. Instead, they guide and support committee members in working their way through a process, such as designing the board's role in updating a values and vision statement, keeping the discussion on point, making sure that important technical issues that emerge are adequately discussed, and the like. They are process managers and expeditors who might, indeed, have "skin in the game," but don't behave as if their role is to make sure committee members come up with the one right answer. A really capable facilitator will make sure that as many possible right answers come up as feasible and help committee members explore them adequately enough to make an informed choice. For example, there are many possible approaches to board member engagement in updating a values and vision statement—including brainstorming in a retreat, employing a task force, utilizing a number of focus groups, a combination of two or more of these approaches, etc. The CEO wearing the facilitator hat wants to make sure that the pros and cons associated with each potential approach are adequately explored by her board's planning committee before making a commitment.

This article is excerpted from Doug Eadie's 21st book, The Board-Savvy CEO ( He can be reached at

This article was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of Association Leadership, a publication of the Texas Society of Association Executives and is reprinted with permission.