• Categories: Board CEO Relationship
  • Author: Graeme Nahkies
  • Published: Oct 29, 2010
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The survival instincts of many chief executives have sustained them as they have battled to keep their organisations functioning and viable in the 15 months since the arrival of COVID-19.

Coping with the pandemic, however, has become wearying in what is a stressful job at the best of times. In our work with boards, we see growing numbers of chief executives becoming less productive, increasingly grumpy with their boards, staff and key stakeholders, and more mistake prone.

Stating the obvious, boards have a vested interest in their chief executives being successful. As employment law has evolved, boards are increasingly required to pay close attention to Good Employer expectations. Among these, how the work environment affects the general health and wellbeing of their chief executive is central. Any sign that a chief executive is struggling to maintain his or her equanimity should be treated as a red flag.

Boards should resist the temptation to become amateur psychologists but—as responsible employers and the people ultimately accountable for organisational wellbeing—they should be alert to signs of chief executive stress.

The first thing to note is that chief executives are incentivised to deny fallibility and stress. They tend to be very reluctant to show any signs of weakness—particularly to their boards. The chief executive’s role and responsibilities are inherently stressful. In the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the modern world, organisational life was already demanding before the pandemic struck. Organisational change, with all the challenges involved in adapting to a constantly changing environment, was ‘business as usual’.

The arrival of COVID has greatly increased the potential for chief executive burnout of the kind that can destroy individuals and organisations. However, the signs are usually apparent well before such a serious (and possibly irrecoverable) state is reached.

[Please note that the following content is based on observation of client boards and their chief executives and my own experience of the pressures of senior executive and board roles. It is not specialised medical advice, which should be sought in particular circumstances.]

Typical signs of chief executive stress

These often revolve around the classic human responses to stress: fight or flight.

In terms of the former, the type of chief executive behaviours often observed in the boardroom includes:

  • increased irritability and impatience
  • aggressive defensiveness
  • argumentativeness and a compulsion to win every argument; to increase levels of control
  • excuses and a tendency to try and blame others—including the board—when things don't go well
  • agitation
  • increased anxiety—a sense that there is ‘too much to do and too little time to do it in’
  • a loss of perspective—becoming easily distracted and losing focus on important matters

Flight-type responses are also common, such as:

  • reduced pushback on matters that the board has previously been told were important
  • lethargy—reduced enthusiasm and energy in the chief executive's personal demeanour
  • avoidance and withdrawal—reduced communication and a reluctance to raise or discuss difficult issues
  • a sense of helplessness and a lack of ideas on what to do next. The sense conveyed to the board that the mountain has become too big to climb.

Other symptoms that might not be as easily classified as ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ include the chief executive’s:

  • excessive tiredness
  • reduced confidence and decisiveness
  • loss of concentration and even memory loss
  • tendency to make mistakes or be accident prone.

Boards might also observe:

  • that it takes longer to get things done
  • that the chief executive suffers from an increased incidence of physical health problems
  • an increase in an addictive behaviour, including the abuse of alcohol
  • incidents of erratic behaviour in public and in meetings with stakeholders.

It is very easy for boards observing these types of behaviours to conclude that their chief executive has either ‘lost the plot’ or is not up to the demands of the job. Too often there is a tendency to jump to the conclusion that there is only one solution—to exit the chief executive.

Switching chief executives is frequently very disruptive and expensive. It should only be considered as a last resort. When observing stress in its chief executive, the board’s starting point should, more often than not, be with its own performance.


What is the board doing to increase/reduce chief executive stress?

Is the board making clear what is important? A common source of chief executive stress is a board’s failure to speak with one voice about performance expectations. Chief executives are then pulled in different directions by the personal agendas of different board members. A related problem is a board’s inability to prioritise. Its expectations (to the extent these are even explicit) constitute little more than a lengthy and unrealistic ‘wish list’.

To address this problem, jointly analyse pressure points, with the aim helping the chief executive to have a greater sense of being in control and of the job being ‘doable’.

  • What is really important?
  • Is the board agreed on priorities?
  • Are those priorities achievable with the resources available?
  • Do performance measures and incentives fit the current reality?

Another consideration, often ignored, is whether the chief executive has the experience that would make it reasonable to expect her/him to be totally on top of the job. This is often a problem in not-for-profits and in smaller start-ups in the private sector, where the chief executive may be relatively inexperienced as a general manager and in dealing with a board. As such they may have a relatively naïve, heroic view of the role. If so, they are likely to think they are expected to have all the answers. Related to this is an often desperate desire to please the board or even a sense that they need to ‘manage’ the board.

A good part of the solution is for the board to recognise the risks in an inexperienced chief executive, be supportive and resist rushing to premature, negative, judgements about the chief executive’s competence. Chief executives inexperienced in this way can be greatly assisted by mentoring that helps them take a more realistic and pragmatic approach to their role. Encourage your chief executive to find someone with appropriate experience—preferably outside the board and the organisation—to help them understand their situation and to develop options for handling it.

Be aware that if the board or its chair is also inexperienced, some coaching/mentoring for them is also required. In fact, the board chair is perhaps the critical element in dealing with chief executive stress.

It is important, first, to understand when the chief executive is under stress. Because they interact more frequently with their chief executives, chairs are likely to have more opportunity to observe their stress levels. Some directors who see signs of chief executive weakness become like the proverbial sharks that smell blood. In these cases, chairs may need to ‘run interference’ for the chief executive.

Chairs can also help their board to understand that now (e.g. in the midst of a crisis) may not be the time to question whether it has the right chief executive. No chief executive is perfect, and the board has probably made a big investment in the one it already has.

As much as anything else, the chair needs the board to understand that undue stress has a negative impact on chief executive performance and adding more will simply exacerbate the problem. It is rarely, if ever, the right response to conclude that a chief executive simply needs to ‘toughen up’. A more appropriate and effective response is to ask questions such as:

  • Are we creating a safe environment in which our chief executive can do her/his best work?
  • Are we putting any unnecessary pressure on the chief executive?
  • What ingredients are needed to ensure our chief executive is successful?
  • Are we focused on moving forward and finding solutions, or are we looking back and ascribing blame; looking to punish rather than learn?
  • Are we incentivising the wrong types of behaviour (e.g. hiding rather than sharing bad news)?

Inherent in these questions is the board’s responsibility (a legal one in some jurisdictions) for the ‘pastoral care’ of their employee. This means having regard for the person as well as the position. The board/chief executive relationship is not just a functional/transactional one. Board members should think more often than many do: “How would I feel if I were in the chief executive's shoes. Is the way I would like to be treated?”

Boards should always be alert to undue stress in their chief executive and to understand that the board itself may be a key source of that stress. As part of their employment responsibilities, as well as their ultimate responsibility for organisational wellbeing, this risk is something that should be high in the consciousness of every board.


This article was originally published in BoardWorks Issue #5 October 2010. It has been updated with a preamble to connect it to current events.