How To Build A Relationship With Your Board

Build a relationship with your board.
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To play a more strategic role, CFOs need to know how to get on the board’s radar. First order of business: make sure you aren’t seen as a ‘glorified controller.’

Jack McCullough, founder and president of Chief Executive Group’s CFO Leadership Council, was surprised by an email he received recently. A member of the group had reached out for help with her salary negotiations, and she noted that the board had referred to her as a “glorified controller.”

“I thought it was an unfair label,” McCullough noted in an impromptu Zoom meeting he called on Thursday to discuss the issue. “She’s run complex finance organizations, including her current one.”

CFOLC members responded enthusiastically to the meeting, with over 100 people showing up. (If you’re interested in becoming a member of the CFOLC community, you can join here.) A quick poll found more than a quarter of attendees had a similar experience—and many were struggling with how to forge a relationship with their board.

“The relationship with the board is the toughest part of my job,” said one member. Agreed another, “It can be difficult to manage that relationship—by far, it’s the hardest thing I have to do.”

The hour-long discussion brought up concrete ways to build the relationship, including:

  • Get your CEO on your side. Make sure your CEO is OK with your outreach to board members. Some, especially those with financial experience, don’t immediately see what you can add or feel proprietary about their own role. Keep the CEO in the loop with anything you do.
  • Start with the audit committee. Reaching out to the audit committee and building that relationship first can get you in the door.
  • Be forward-thinking. If you spend all your time looking backward and focused on closing books, you aren’t offering the kind of strategic perspective that can be helpful to the board and make them want to include you.
  • Don’t just present data, make recommendations. Data is critical but use it to have a point of view. “Don’t just dump a lot of data in front of them. Offer analysis and interpretation, then always end with an ask,” recommended one member.

Perhaps most important, give yourself time. Having a good relationship with your board can make a tremendous difference for the company—and for your career. But it doesn’t happen overnight. “You have to reach out, get those meetings, those chances to get to know each other as people,” said one member. Most agreed it can take a year or even two—but the rewards are worth it.

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