Article

What a board really wants from a CEO (Part 1 of 2)

By Kerryn Newton, CEO

Of all the functions of a board, arguably the most critical is appointing the right person as CEO and monitoring the performance of that person.

The ‘right’ CEO is someone who can work with the board to develop and then implement strategic and business objectives and drive performance to achieve those objectives in a sustainable way – and consistent with the desired corporate culture.

Increasingly, the relationship between boards and CEOs is seen as one of collaboration, where both parties work together to achieve company objectives while maintaining the important distinction between the board’s role (to govern) and the CEO’s role (to manage).

In this context, board expectations of a CEO might be broadly viewed in two dimensions.

Firstly, a board expects a CEO to apply their skills, experience and industry knowledge to deliver the company’s strategic and business objectives.

Secondly, a board expects the CEO to be committed to a constructive and open relationship with the board, built on trust and candour.

In this two part article we explore each of the these dimensions.

Deliver strategic and business objectives

It is important that, at the outset of the CEO’s appointment, the board discusses with the CEO and gains agreement on:

  • the basis for the board and CEO relationship, and
  • clear performance expectations.

In essence, boards want CEOs to work with them to develop an appropriate strategic direction and plan for the company in response to the strategic and competitive environment.

The CEO also has the key responsibility to implement that strategy and hence drive company performance.

Performance indicators – both financial and non-financial – are critical for the board to monitor progress in achieving the strategic plan. Setting the ‘right’ performance indicators are also imperative to drive the right performance and not result in unintended consequences.

Boards should also have a policy and process for reviewing the performance of the CEO against these performance indicators, which involves at least an annual formal review. A well-structured and facilitated performance review process can bring about significant benefits in an enhanced CEO and board relationship as well as organisational performance.

Boards will expect that their CEO participates in that process in a constructive and engaged way.

The CEO’s remuneration review – irrespective of whether it involve a performance or ‘at risk’ component – should be linked to the performance framework.

We consider that the CEO’s performance framework should involve three discrete parts.

Part 1: KPIs aligned to the strategic plan

Key areas of the CEO’s performance which might be reviewed in this regard include whether the CEO has met the board’s expectations regarding:

  • embedding vision and organisational culture
  • delivering financial performance
  • delivering operational performance
  • effectively managing physical resources
  • motivating and optimising human resources
  • implementing governance frameworks and controls
  • managing risk within the board’s approved risk appetite, and
  • managing stakeholder relationships and representing the company.

As far as possible KPIs should be succinct and measurable, and focus on the key areas critical to organisational performance.

If there is a performance bonus or ‘at risk’ component to the remuneration structure then the performance framework should clearly set out the ‘stretch’ hurdles to be achieved.

Part 2: Leadership attributes and behaviours

CEOs need to have the right personal attributes and behaviours such as drive, commitment, communication and interpersonal skills, decision-making, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, integrity and the ability to motivate others.

These should be set out in the CEO’s position description.

Assessing how the CEO is living these attributes and behaviours is an important part of the review process.

Part 3: The CEO’s relationship with the board

The final component to be assessed in a CEO performance review is how the CEO works with the board. Aspects of this relationship are discussed further in Part 2 of this article.

Directors Australia assists a wide range of boards in developing CEO performance frameworks and facilitating CEO performance evaluations.

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