One of the ongoing questions from members of Board of Directors is how to resolve the tension between oversight and managing. I recently had the opportunity to visit with Joe Howell, the Executive Vice President (EVP) of Workiva, Inc. on this subject. Howell has worked on and with Boards of Directors at various companies and I wanted to garner his understanding of the role of a Board and both senior management and a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO). Howell had a short response which I thought was an excellent starting point to understand the role; put sand in the shoes of management.

The key to such a metaphor succeeding is that a Board of Directors, “by continuing to challenge management on these scenarios that management has considered and the stories management is telling itself about what could go wrong”, can “help get management out of its comfort zone by and large executive teams begin to believe themselves when they talk about how well they’re doing. The independent challenge that the board can offer putting the little bit of sand in the shoe to make sure that you’re thinking about things carefully can cause you to step back and really focus your resources where they’re needed.”

Howell noted the role of the Board is not management but oversight, focusing on governance. To do so, an effective Board should challenge senior management not only on what they have planned for but what they may not have considered or may not even know about. He said, “one very good example is the whole, the reputation of those stakeholders involved in the company and that can be the management team itself, the employees, and the board members themselves.” This is because reputational damage hurts everyone. Howell went on to state, “it’s very important as we go through some of the ways the board can help management in that role. I think the things that really make a difference to management is when the board is able to be an effective devil’s advocate. Not managing management but helping them in their governing role by helping management to step back and think critically of their own underlying assumptions and biases.”

A Board is not simply there to be a rubber stamp for senior management. It must exercise independent judgment, action and oversight. Further, it is the Board’s role to ask hard, difficult and probing questions to make sure management is not only doing its job but has considered other risk possibilities.

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Boards should force management to open up the company to itself.
  2. Boards should be a grain of sand in the shoe of management.
  3. Boards should make sure senior management is aware of and planning for both known and unknown risks.