The Boardroom: The Ultimate Supreme Court

It works in politics, but the divisive Supreme Court selection process wouldn’t fly in the boardroom.

It’s a sign of the divisive times. Whomever President Trump nominated to fill the latest open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court would be opposed by a sizable number of U.S. senators. Still, Trump didn't need a broad consensus, just 51 of 100 senators to get his nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, confirmed. 

Winning over a slender majority on a major decision may work well enough in Washington, D.C., but experts say it’s a far cry from how chief executives need to work with their own corporate boards. “As a CEO, you can’t work that way with a board because you are held accountable to it,’’ says Tierney Remick, a vice chairman and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Board & CEO Practice.  When a CEO engages with a board, he or she is in a room filled with peers. “Their support is needed to drive the CEO’s strategy,” she adds.  

Whether it’s winning board approval for a merger, a restructuring, or a top-level executive hire, CEOs need to take a number of steps that might have tried the patience and political skills of many U.S. presidents. Those steps must be happened months or even years before a critical initiative is addressed by the board, says Kevin Cashman, a Korn Ferry global leader of CEO Executive Development. “The key point here is that whenever there is a big difficult important decision, you better have the trust of the board and it better be consistent with a strategy that is already in place with that board,” says Cashman, who coaches executives in such matters. 

A board will naturally have questions about a CEO’s proposals, and even sometimes be opposed to them, but both Remick and Cashman point out that executives who do the necessary relationship-building upfront will have an easier time winning over a divided board. “A good board isn’t making unanimous decisions in support of the CEO all of the time,” adds Cashman. “As an executive, you want a board that challenges the decisions you make.” It’s at such moments, Cashman says, that a CEO may need to draw on this “relationship equity” to win over the board debating a thorny issue. 

Remick says that the leading CEOs in the U.S. naturally get that point without much coaching. 

“The best CEOs know how to bring the critics on the board into the discussion so that the critics respect the leader enough to get behind them and follow them,” she says. “In the end, those board members will trust the process and trust the CEO to drive the outcome.“