SVNACD Event – Corporate Boards: Strategy, Not Just Operations Review

Bob Frisch photoBob Frisch is the managing partner of Strategic Offsites Group. He has more than 29 years of experience working with executive teams and boards worldwide on their most critical strategic issues. He has published three articles on teams and decision making in the Harvard Business Review: “Who Really Makes the Big Decisions in Your Company” (12/11), “When Teams Can’t Decide” (11/08) and “Off-Sites That Work” (6/06). Bob’s work has been profiled in publications from Fortune to CFO to the Johannesburg Business Report. He is a regular contributor to Bloomberg Business Week and The Wall Street Journal and his blog appears at

Bob Frisch

Before founding Strategic Offsites Group, Bob was a managing partner of Accenture, where he led the organization and change strategy practice for financial services, retail and consumer products. Before that, at Gemini Consulting he led the America’s region strategy practice and created the firm’s global capability in corporate vision and growth. He began his career at The Boston Consulting Group, where he helped start BCG’s Los Angeles office while advancing from summer consultant to manager.

In addition to a successful consulting career, Bob twice temporarily left consulting to take senior executive roles. In the 1980s he ran planning and business development for The Dial Corporation, where he designed and implemented new strategic planning and acquisition processes. He then became the youngest division president of this Fortune 500 company. In the 1990s he led corporate strategy for Sears, Roebuck and Co., where he helped guide what was, at the time, the largest voluntary restructuring in history.

Below are some brief notes, often just phrases, that reflect my own thoughts while being influenced by Bob’s presentation. They are in no way inclusive but are simply ment to give readers an idea of material covered. Bob does an excellent job of summarizing his presentation in SVNACD’s video wrap-up, produced by WMS Media.

Five Strategy Conversations Every Board Should Have

1. Are we working at the right altitude? Are We clear onthe Boards Role vs Management when it comes to strategy?

Polar views- hands on vs hands off. Does board decide strategy together or only review what management develops? 25% help develop the content vs only 64% approving final strategy. Nature will depend on the particular company and the problems it faces. Should jointly establish the process, “including an understanding of the respective roles of management and the board.”  Review, scrub and vet. Help to supplement management expertise (supplement with their expertise). Help management generate fresh thinking.  Too many have never explicitly had that conversation. Use the buckets of KcKinsey survey to facilitate. Be the rare board that has the overt conversation.

Audience show of hands: Clear understanding, most, very different opinions, all over the map. Of course, most fell toward the middle.

2. Are we aligned around an aspiration?

How well do following groups understand: board, CEO, SVP level execs and above, Wall Street analysts? How would you assess the level of alignment regarding the view of the company and where it is going in the next 3-5 years?   Aspiration – strategy – alignment – organization and process – resources to get there.  Qualitative, quantitative. What does “good” look like? The “only” thing that matters? Need a common destination. Boards need an explicit long-term objective. Concrete benchmark can be important, although CEOs might rather not have them because performance can be more easily measured against explicit objectives.

3. Are we aligned around the walls and fences that hone the business? 

Walls are the boundaries around any business that are assumed to be immovable – so much so that executives don’t even bother to approach them. But by challenging these assumptions teams discover that the walls are sometimes actually fences – boundaries that can in fact be moved, opening up strategic space for the company to grow. CEOs don’t like to define boundaries but boards should. You don’t build a new list every year but you might check it every year. Wall and fences are usually electrified. Nobody goes nears them. A quick ride around the fence each year should be a responsibility of the full board.

4. Are we getting the information we need to do our job?

Range: excellent data, good, satisfactory, below acceptable. Great on financials but not so much on strategy. Do you have access? Yes, financial, operational, not so much leading indicators on direction of industry sector, company. Board needs to understand competition. Operational, near-term data is there but not often on the industry. As a result, outside analysts often know more than board members. Review doesn’t take much but building strategy as part of your role requires industry data for comparison. 20% don’t get information on customer satisfaction, competitor, employees in one survey. Board members need better research than what they are likely to get from their own casual observations or by questioning their mother-in-law.

5. Is the board involved in setting the strategic agenda?

20-30% feel kept in dark. CEOs should treat the board as their boss, especially where they have a nonexecutive chairman. CEO sets the agenda (45%), board in consultation (20%), nonexecutive chairman (26%).  Gives strategy questions for next 18 months. Time dimensions: now, soon, later. Do we have the data to discuss? Collect topics, prioritize, what information is needed to discuss?  What are the unanswered questions? Engage the board in these five conversations. If you have those discussions, the quality and nature of conversations and satisfaction will go up.

Don’t miss the slides Bob used in his presentation, found on the SVNACD site. His new book, Who’s in the Room: How Great Leaders Structure and Manage the Teams Around Them, has been getting mostly rave reviews on Amazon. In my own review, I compare it favorably to the classic classic political science booklet by Lloyd S EtheredgeThe Case of the Unreturned Cafeteria Trays: an Investigation Based on Theories of Motivation and Human Behavior (pdf). Also check out Bob’s video, which gives a brief overview of the book.

If you live anywhere near the San Francisco Bay Area (I’m 120 miles away), it is well worth coming to SVNACD and Rock Center events. They are unparalleled and Bob’s presentation was more proof of the quality programs on offer.  Plus, these are great venues for discussions during Q&A, networking and one-on-one conversations with informative speakers.


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