[Executive Coaching Tips] Managing Conflict with the Chairman of the Board

The subject of the call with the pharma CEO was not new territory for either one of us: the non-executive chairman of his company’s board wanted to micromanage and get deeply involved when he had the time or interest, and would go missing in action when the heavy or unpleasant work (like letting the founder know he was off the board of directors) came around.

It’s not so unusual – but how do you manage conflict when the stakes can be high and personal?

Here’s five things to keep on your radar when you’re in this situation, or something similar:

  1. People on boards of directors frequently have relationships not only on other boards, but also have relationships outside of business. Playing badly, or looking like your playing badly with a board member has a cost and usually it’s a cost that you don’t want to pay. Steve Jobs handling of Fred Anderson’s departure from Apple, as one example, is one case with lingering consequences.
  2. If you have a choice between making friends or making enemies, choose making friends. There are lots of areas where anyone with a crisp point of view will make enemies.
  3. Being thoughtful – and giving someone a face saving out – is seldom a bad idea. Unless you’re cooking to be sucker punched relentlessly (see #2 above), thinking about a way things can work so everyone gets most of what they really want it an excellent strategy.
  4. Oscar Wilde was not only a good writer, but could show flashes of being a smart strategist.  A line attributed to him regarded marriage advice is not to say “no” to someone you don’t want to marry, but rather to say “you’re much too good for me – you deserve to marry someone better.” The same advice applies to talking about the Chairman swooping in and micromanaging: tell him that with skills and abilities like his he certainly has to have far more important things to be doing.
  5. Avoid making the conflict a frontal assault. Give the conflict some distance and perspective and put it “out there” as opposed to between you and the Chairman. In this case, describe it as between two models of how companies can be run. One model is such where the CEO runs the day-to-day operations (the nitty gritty work) of the company and the Chairman and board of directors is involved with key strategy direction and significant financial decisions. The other model is one where the Chairman, and frequently other board members are involved in day to day decisions, and frequently get sucked into remedial work they left behind years ago.

Managing a chairman as well as the rest of a board of directors is about managing relationships. They are things best not taken for granted, and best thought about in a way that lets people have room to make good decisions, as well as a path for people to avoid looking stupid in front of their peers.

And just like any other relationship, it means you need to put in time “courting” people – asking their opinions and thoughts on a regular basis so they feel like they’ve been solicited for their wisdom and thoughts, rather than leaving them out in the cold except when you need them.