4 key ways to build a relationship with your board of directors

Bracing for your next presentation with the board of directors

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You’re not alone. 

But to curtail your concerns and steer you toward building a rock-solid relationship with your board as you rise up the leadership ranks, focus on these four areas: credibility, building relationships, educating the board and influencing outcomes.

That’s the advice from Michael Horne, vice president of total rewards for Dow Chemical, and Mark Englizian, former chief human resource officer for Walgreens and business advisor to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). They spoke this week at i4cp’s Next Practices Now Conference during a panel on optimizing the HR relationship with your board of directors.

See also: Sage-Gavin: HR is in the spotlight. Let’s make it count

Gain credibility by developing business acumen 

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It’s important to demonstrate you care about the company’s overall business and not just your respective department, Horne advises, adding that HR is no longer viewed as the softer side of the business and plays an important strategic role.

“Business acumen is key. It shows you care about them and the business,” Horne says.

One way to develop business acumen is by spending time with colleagues who work in operations, finance and other areas of the company’s business, Englizian says.

Build relationships with board members

One way to do this is to find common touchpoints, says Englizian.

For example, he researches board members to learn more about them and to find any commonalities he shares with them. For example, do you share the same name, or were you ever a customer, partner or employee of the company they oversaw? 

“Conversations are the simplest way to build relationships and we all know how to do this,” Englizian says.

Demonstrating humility when conversing with directors can help build a strong, trusting relationship with your board. 

Rather than try to “fake” an answer to a question, it’s best to respond with something like “You raise a good question and I don’t have an answer now. But I will get back to you with an answer,” says Horne, as an example of humility. And when asked about the status of a project or situation that may not be off the mark it’s fair to say, “here is where we are but it’s not where I ultimately want to be.”

“Assume the questions you get from your board are coming from a good place and aren’t meant to knock you off your feet or disarm you,” Horne says.

Educate the board with context

When you stand before the board, remember you are there to share your insights and advice. But in educating your board, remember that they may not have remembered everything you told them three months prior, at the last board meeting.

“We are the experts in our field and we need to embrace that. While we live this every day, we only meet with the board maybe four or five times a year. We would do well to help bridge that gap for them,” Horne says.

He advises HR leaders to briefly tell the board where the situation or project was when you last met, where you are now and where you expect to be in the future.  

One key point Horne stresses is the board is not only looking for information but also recommendations. As a result, before the board meeting get full alignment on any recommendations you plan to propose so you can present them as a management recommendation versus solely your recommendation.

Influence outcomes with data, research and knowledge

One way to influence your board is with the power of reliable data.

“It’s imperative to have credible data sources that support the outcome,” Horne says. “Gone are the days where you can say, ‘This is what we think,’ and have nothing to back it up.”

Presenting your information like an executive summary is also key, such as what issue or problem you are seeking to resolve and your recommendations based on the data or your research.

Also, remember what is important to the board is also important for you. And public company boards are particularly interested in what their investors are concerned about. Proxy advisory firms like Glass Lewis and Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) make recommendations to investors on how to vote on various matters from compensation to pay transparency to board composition when companies send out their proxy ballots to investors.

It’s worth your time to not only research the background of your board members but also whether they are a large investor in your company, Horne says. This external information can play into how you present your material and the depth of your research, especially if your recommendation is to go against the advice from Glass Lewis or ISS.

Regardless of whether you present an executive summary, PowerPoint presentation or some other type of presentation to your board, it should be brief.

“The board wants to hear from you, but they want you to be quick about it. They don’t want you to spend five minutes presenting. They want something they can digest in 30 seconds or less,” Englizian says. “You need to do this in a concise way.”

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.