What makes an effective Board of Directors?
As part of my Board Watch research, I have seen Board meetings of varying effectiveness. But what does an effective Board look like to me?
At the most effective Board meeting to date I observed…
- Board members had real conversations. Everyone felt free to contribute and did. They talked to each other and, while the Chair facilitated the conversation, it wasn’t controlled or manipulated in the way I have frequently seen elsewhere.
- There was genuine challenge. Board members who wanted to oppose a decision or offer a different viewpoint to executives did so and were not put off by disagreement. They respectfully questioned and challenged the assumptions on which decisions were being made. In other Boards I have observed, whenever a non-executive asks a challenging question, whatever the reply, the subject is quickly dropped. It is as if Board members are embarrassed to be disagreeing with the executive team.
- The Chair made connections between the issues being discussed, in this case sickness absence, and other issues in the business. The Board was interested in the organisation as a results generating system.
- All Board members were listening intently and questioning the information they were given. For example, they questioned their own clarity about how their performance targets were defined and how realistic they were. Most Boards I have observed take what they are given and don’t seem to realise that they are responsible for making sure they get the information needed for effective governance and leadership. I mean information, not the huge detailed data packs that are often handed out and are difficult for part time Board members to make sense of.
- The Chair was very effective at sensing the best time to close down a conversation and actually close it down. He was effective at drawing out the salient issues and confirming the agreed action, if any. Many of the Chairs I have observed recently either have great difficulty closing a conversation, often letting it head off in random directions, or bring a conversation to a close before the key issues/points have been properly explored.
- Board members talked about how the work of their own organisation could contribute to national objectives and policies. Most of the Boards I have observed so far have been quite inward focussed and concerned with current issues rather than long term goals.
Key factors that can aid Board effectiveness
- The size of the Board. It is easier to have a real conversation with 12 people round the table rather than 30. That’s not to say you can’t have an effective conversation with 30 people, of course you can, but it needs to be structured and facilitated in a different way.
- The facilitation skills of the Chair. Traditional “speak when I give you permission’ approaches don’t work if you want to create meaningful conversation. A Chair needs to be able to ‘set the tone’, hold the conversational space, listen deeply and sense where the conversation is moving. They need to intervene with a light touch when Board members stray too far from the subject and be able to close things down when all viewpoints have been aired and decisions are needed.
- The balance of behavioural preferences round the Board table. Dr David Kantor’s 4-player model (below) provides a useful way of looking at Boardroom conversations. The structure of a conversation is just as important as the words used and the emotions expressed.
A Move creates direction, for example – “let’s talk about these high sickness absence levels”
A Follow completes/supports a Move – “I agree we need to get a handle on it”
An Oppose corrects a Move – “There’s no point talking about that now”
A Bystand observes and names what is happening and brings together different perspectives – “we clearly have different views about the urgency of this issue”
A Board needs a balance of all four preferences or conversation becomes stuck in repeating patterns and is less than optimal.
If you would like to find out more about the Board Watch research project and how you can improve the quality of your Boardroom Conversations, then drop me a line – firstname.lastname@example.org