How directors can determine if they are serving — or hindering — a board.
In more than 23 years spent working with 175-plus corporate boards, Beverly Behan has learned this firsthand: The problem people on any board are the ones who are oblivious and obstinate.
As a board advisor helping directors review performance, she sees the same dynamic repeat itself. She delivers negative feedback, and the recipient reacts in shock, then denial.
“The worst directors,” she says, “disregard negative feedback. The best relish it as a chance to improve. And that is really the mark of a good director: devotion to continuous improvement.”
Grasping our own shortcomings is always an intellectual and emotional challenge. But coming to terms with your own performance and reputation is vital. Are you serving the board? Or are you an impediment, the “bad” character everyone else is complaining about?
Many corporate boards have at least one such character. Often, it’s a new member just learning the ropes, but sometimes it’s a corporate veteran, grown complacent and mired in bad habits. Either way, you owe it to your colleagues to self-identify potential failures and correct them.
Here are five steps to ensure you’re the “best” character on the board.
Understand the culture. Much of board service success relies on the social side of business. Members may be hired for their expertise, but it’s their skill in building relationships that either makes or undoes them. So go to board dinners and other social affairs, even if they’re advertised as optional. If group travel arrangements are made, don’t opt for your own plans. Relationships are formed when personal details and the brass tacks of the business freely intermingle, like the contents of the cocktail in your hand.
Solicit feedback (in a roundabout way). Asking for direct feedback from colleagues is tricky. Will they dare be honest? So save the “How am I doing?” question for the board chair. Sitting across the table at a diner, coffee shop or fancy restaurant, a co-director might open up room for an honest conversation, some nugget of insight you can use, and help you find a key mentor.
Stay focused on what’s important. New and old hands at the director game face a constant challenge to remember their job on a board is to govern — not manage as they did in executive positions on their way to this role.
Ram Charan, author of Boards That Lead, who has served on boards all over the world, says there are really only five meaningful areas high-functioning boards ever weigh in on. Your contribution is to remain vigilant on these big issues: Do you have the right CEO, and when do you pull the trigger if you don’t? Are you always maintaining a shortlist of internal and external candidates — people you’re actively meeting with and forging a relationship?
It’s important to remind yourself why you’re there. Charan says a good board member acts as counsel to the CEO, providing observations and serving as a sounding board; understands the company’s strategy, competition, and relevant technology trends, taking in data from the CEO’s team but also gathering their own intelligence; provides advice and insight on potential mergers and acquisitions; and masters the compensation, striking the right balance between rewarding executives for meeting short- and long-term goals.
“Everything else is not a director’s job,” says Charan. “If you’re involving yourself in things that are not tied directly to these issues, you do not belong on the board.”
Be intentional about your reputation. There is a ton of good research out there on personality types and how they can sustain or smash a corporate culture. Board Dynamics: How to Get Results From Your Board and Committees, published by The National Association of Corporate Directors, provides a particularly concise round-up of the best thinking on the subject. There are particular characters, like The Nitpicker, who scrutinizes trivial details and provides overly harsh criticism; and The Sandbagger, who destroys a meeting’s momentum by raising criticisms at the least appropriate times; and The Victor, who needs to win every argument and have the last word.
Best, of course, to be the Consensus Builder. But you have to develop some intentionality about building the reputation you want.
Taking a personality test, such as Myers-Briggs, can be a big help. Are you naturally quiet and accommodating, or dominating? Congenial or aggressive? There are no wrong answers, but knowing your own tendencies can be a big step toward harnessing your own particular skill set and personality for the good of the company. Take a test every few years. The reputation you built for yourself five years ago might not be the reputation you have now.
Come prepared. It might seem obvious, but there is nothing that irks fellow board members more than someone who shows up without doing all the work that should take place before the meeting.
This means reading material and reports in advance. Make your best estimation of what issues will or ought to arise, and be ready to contribute meaningful thoughts or questions. But, as Charan puts it, you don’t have to — and shouldn’t — comment on everything. “Asking one question in a meeting,” he says, “if it is the right question, can be a massive contribution. One insight might be very important, but not be recognized for three or four years.”
The point is this: the whole process of serving on a board is one that unfolds over a long time, and your attempts to diagnose and correct your shortcomings should be ongoing. That might even mean requesting your board hire an outside evaluator. But it’s up to individual board members to be intentional about that process and present the best version of themselves — for everyone’s sake.
As Behan states, it’s really a matter of being willing to recognize your flaws, “and then do something about them.”
Jason León, CPA, is a Managing Director in the Board of Directors practice at Diversified Search, one of the top ten executive search firms in the nation as ranked by Forbes magazine. He manages the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, and has placed directors on the boards of Fortune 1000 companies ranging from financial services, to manufacturing, to asset management leaders.