A version of this article was first published on Troy Media.
Cindy, a consistently high performer, has been with her firm for 10 years. She really likes the company, her job and the people she works with. About 6 months ago she found herself with a new boss. He’s an up-and-comer; young, ambitious but lacking in leadership savvy. Determined to prove himself, he pushes people hard without providing the support or structure they need. Cindy was patient, assuming he would settle into the role. But he hasn’t. She is angry, frustrated, and thinking about leaving the company. Studies consistently show one of the top reasons people quit a job is to escape a bad boss. At some point in your career you will probably find yourself in this situation. Is it always worth throwing in the towel and finding something else to do? Not always. If you don’t want to, or can’t, leave your job what can you do?
Is it me or is it you?
The first step is to determine if the problem is your boss. Do others feel the same way? If you are surrounded by a crowd, you can safely assume your boss is the problem. If, on the other hand, everyone else seems to be getting along, it is probably an issue of fit between the two of you. And if this is a problem you encounter time and time again, it is probably about you.
Start with empathy
Let’s assume your boss is the problem. As difficult as it might be, try to look past your frustration and seek to understand why they are such a challenge. Very few people try to be terrible on purpose. So what’s going on? If your boss is approachable, a conversation may be appropriate. Perhaps something like, “I can see you struggling in this role, and it is making things difficult for me too. What can I do to help you so we are both successful?”
Take advantage of safe ways to provide feedback to the company about the situation. If you have a human resources person you trust, share your feedback and ask for advice. If someone from senior management asks how things are going, be diplomatic but candid. Again, a good strategy is to ask for advice about how to work with your boss more effectively. It sends the message there is a problem, but you are looking for solutions.
Play the waiting game
When my friend Jack was dealing with a bad boss I suggested the company would probably figure out they had a problem. I advised him to be patient and wait it out. It took almost a year, but a 360-degree review was promptly followed by his boss being reassigned. If you think your company knows they have a problem, it is probably worth hanging on until they make a change.
Disengage emotionally from the relationship
While you are waiting for the situation to resolve itself, don’t let your boss’ bad behaviour get the better of you. If you know you won’t get what you need, do yourself a favour and don’t cling to unrealistic expectations; the only person who will be disappointed is you. Manage your expectations and limit your interactions. Get good at finding alternate paths to getting what you need, whether it is support, resources or a sounding board. Rely on your boss as a last resort. Be respectful and responsive to requests for meetings or information, but don’t initiate them more than is required.
Limit the time you spend venting with colleagues. Negative energy produces more negative energy. Instead, look for support outside of work. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you can often use this to speak to a counsellor who will provide coping strategies.
If you have a boss who is struggling, there is a chance he or she will look for people to blame or ways to change the situation. This is why it is important you handle yourself well. If you want to stay in your job, the last thing you want to do is give someone a reason to end your employment. This is also a good time to dust off your resume, update your LinkedIn profile, and keep an eye on the job market.
Learn from it
Finally, take advantage of this as a learning opportunity. Most managers say their best leadership lessons came from working for a bad boss.
This article was inspired during a walk on the forest with a friend who was recollecting the last 10 years of his career and a run of bad bosses he had survived several years earlier. It made me especially appreciative of the (mostly) pretty good bosses I have had over the years, and also reminded me of the very best thing about working for yourself - no boss.
A version of this article was first published in my HR column on Troy Media.
A few weeks ago I sat with a small group of business owners who wanted to talk about culture. For each of them, culture ranks as one of their key human resource worries - how to shift their culture in a meaningful way, or maintain a culture they see as critical to success. One of the advantages - and responsibilities - of being a business owner is that you have the final say on the culture in your organization.
What is culture?
Too often we talk about building culture as though it were a knob you turn. In fact, culture is an output - the observable manifestation of a myriad of factors that interact and coalesce to create a unique imprint. Inputs that shape culture include strategy, structure, decision-making rules, rewards, customers, values, who you hire, policies, mission, and so on. You can see culture in how your lobby is decorated, and you can feel it in how employees treat each other. It usually takes outsiders only a few words to describe the essence of your culture.
How do you influence culture?
I do not understand the mystique that surrounds culture change. To me, tackling culture requires the same approach you apply to any other business problem: What is your goal? Where are you now? What is your plan to close the gap? You begin with a vision for your culture. Then you take a hard look at what your culture is today. If there is a gap, you systematically look at the key inputs that shape and influence culture and assess which of these you need to address to get a different output. For example, if you envision an egalitarian culture where everyone has a voice, decision-making processes that include some and exclude others will not support your cultural vision. If you aspire to a culture of innovation, a reward system that punishes failure will quash that dream. The important thing is to look at all of the inputs that can shape culture and determine which are most critical to shaping the culture you want to build. Those are the ones you will want to target to align with your cultural vision. You also want to ensure your inputs are not in direct conflict and sending mixed messages. That only gets you the reputation of saying one thing and doing another.
Culture-building strategies that can save you time and money
There are six things you can do to fast-track your culture building efforts:
If you really want to drive change, don’t carry a megaphone
Stealth is vastly under-rated as a change management strategy. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to start with a mesmerizing communication program that tells employees what is wrong with them and how they must change. You need to start by doing things differently. Quietly, consistently, differently. Trust me, people will catch on.
A version of this article was first published in my monthly column on Troy Media.
I have a routine I try to follow each morning. I take a shower, do 20 minutes of yoga stretching, pour myself a cup of coffee and sit down to read something that centres and inspires me. A little Seneca, thoughts from a Buddhist teacher, a chapter of Eckert Tolle. This morning I opened Oriah’s meditation guide to her famous poem ‘The Invitation’. In her introduction she sets out what the reader can expect from her as a spiritual guide. Her commitments stopped me in my tracks. They are, quite simply, some of the best principles I have come across for anyone who, like me, puts themselves in a position to be a guide to others. As business consultants, people hire us to help guide them to new knowledge, insight, behaviour, processes, strategies. Oriah’s principles apply equally well to us.
The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, published in 1995, was my inspiration for this article. She lays out what the reader can expect from her in the first chapter 'Accepting the Invitation'. It is a beautiful book.
A version of this article was first published in my monthly column on Troy Media.
For her entire career, Phoebe has really struggled with how to manage her time. She has a great attitude and the quality of her work is first-rate, but it seems to take her twice as long as anyone else to bring a project to completion. Recently she moved into a new role, replacing someone who had half the experience and skills she has. And, yet, she finds herself toiling away at her computer well into the evening and still struggling to keep up with the workload. This is not a new problem for Phoebe. Up until now, she has convinced everyone, including herself, that conscientiousness is a virtue and quality work takes time. Her current manager, however, isn’t buying it. The reason she was hired was because he believed she could manage many more clients than her predecessor. Instead, she is managing less. Phoebe’s manager spotted the problem quickly. She is a perfectionist.
I’ve worked with a lot of perfectionists over the years and tried help them overcome this tendency, approaching it from a lot of different angles. Most of them have been unsuccessful. It is extremely difficult to convince a perfectionist they need to relax their standards, go with the flow, manage their time more efficiently, or live by the 80/20 rule. Now there is only one conversation I have with perfectionists: what you are doing is stealing.
Perfectionism is stealing from customers
Phoebe works for a social services agency and cares deeply about the clients she serves. When she spends 4 hours writing a letter on their behalf instead of the 2 that have been allocated, that is 2 hours she could be spending helping someone else. For Phoebe to shift away from her perfectionism requires her to care more about helping more people than in nailing the quality of any single task.
Perfectionism is stealing from the company
Phoebe is paid to manage a portfolio of clients, each of whom is a source of revenue for the organization. Her client load is 75% of what it should be. As a result, the company is not collecting as much revenue as it needs to sustain the business. While she gets paid her salary regardless, her perfectionism is putting the future of the organization - and her own job - at risk. She needs to come to terms with the fact that time is - quite literally - money. Until being a good steward of resources is more important to her than delivering a perfect product every single time, Phoebe will forever struggle with her perfectionism.
Perfectionism is stealing from family and friends
Phoebe is an ongoing source of frustration for her family and friends. She makes commitments and then often arrives late or cancels at the last minute because she is “stuck at work”. She wears her dedication to her job like a badge of honour, frequently drawing attention to the fact she works longer hours than anyone else. What she doesn’t realize is that people think twice about inviting her to something because they know they are less important to her than her work. Until Phoebe cares more about keeping commitments to other people than she does about the occasional spelling mistake, she will be trapped in her perfectionism.
Perfectionism is stealing from yourself
Phoebe is a talented artist, was a competitive swimmer in high school, and still holds the record for the most funds raised for a local charity. She keeps talking about how much she needs to get back into the gym, how great it would be to paint again, how she misses her volunteer work. But she doesn’t have time. For Phoebe to overcome her perfectionism, she needs to put more value on her own time than she does on being able to get every answer right.
Perfectionism is a form of theft. Obsessing over the right word, the right image, re-reading for spelling mistakes for the fifth time, triple-checking the math, hunting down that interesting but obscure reference, re-writing an article seven times, hitting every card shop in the city for just the right sentiment. All of these things are stealing time. Time from other tasks, other people, your employer. And, most important of all, yourself.
A version of this article was first published for my HR Column on Troy Media.
Leading a team requires a skill set that is completely different from that of managing your direct reports. I have worked for leaders who were great at galvanizing a team but really ineffective one-on-one, and amazing bosses who were terrible team leads. Actually, most of the people I’ve worked for fall into the second category. This is because leading a team is a complex and difficult task. When things aren’t going well on the team, the common solution is to get people together for a team intervention. The hope is spending time together delving into and trying to understand personal styles will fix things. Team building workshops can be powerful tools to improve working relationships, engagement, alignment and business results - in the right circumstances. But it’s also important to know when not to use a team intervention to try and fix a problem. There are 3 situations when team interventions are best avoided.
When you have a dysfunctional relationship with one of your direct reports. Team workshops are not the appropriate place for you to try and resolve issues with one person on your team. It’s like deciding to have an argument with your significant other and inviting your family and friends over to watch. I have had to sit in the room when this was in play, and I can tell you how uncomfortable it is. In over 20 years of practice, I have never seen or heard of a situation where a boss-employee relationship was mended as the result of a team intervention. More likely, you will both say things in public you will later regret and the chasm between you will widen. Whatever you need to do to resolve a poisoned relationship you need to do behind closed doors.
When it’s all about one person. Sharon, the president of a business unit, was struggling with the level of conflict between her team members. She was tired of constantly being called on to step in and mediate. She desperately wanted to get people on the same page and working together. Talking with everyone in preparation for the offsite it became clear to me one person was the source of conflict and dysfunction. When confronted with this, Sharon admitted John could be difficult but she didn’t realize - or didn’t want to admit - his full impact. The offsite went ahead and within the first hour everyone knew spending 2 days together locked in a room was not going to propel them forward. In the end, Sharon made the difficult decision to replace him, and he has gone on to find a situation that is a better fit for him. It was the right call, just too late. If you have one person on your team who is at the epicentre of your team’s dysfunction, don’t fool yourself into thinking a day of team building exercises is going to make a meaningful difference. All you are doing is sending mixed messages and delaying the inevitable.
The organization is in flux. Fred, a director of marketing, is getting a lot of pressure from his team to get them together for an offsite. His team members all like each other and work pretty well together, but they are struggling to make decisions and getting bogged down by conflicting priorities. They feel they don’t understand where the company is going and what is important. They are anxious to get in a room together and have a high-level conversation with Fred about long-term strategy. Fred knows big change is headed their way and is reluctant to start a conversation about strategy, knowing it is likely to shift in the next few months. Fred is right to push back on his team’s request at this time. Not only would the offsite be a waste of time and energy, his team is likely to feel betrayed when it comes to light he knew the effort would be futile but proceeded anyway. If you know there is imminent change that will re-set the business strategy or team leadership, hit the pause button. The foundation for an effective team is clarity of purpose, and when that purpose isn’t clear even to the leader, it just gets muddier.
Before you jump head-first into a team building session stop and ask yourself, ‘is this really going to resolve the issue?’ If the answer is no, move on.
A couple of high-profile CEO resignations in Vancouver this week got me wondering: do stakeholders expect the board of directors to be transparent about the reasons underlying a CEO's untimely departure? Do they believe the published account put forth by the PR folks? I think I can safely answer 'not usually' to the second question. Sometimes the situation is what it seems - health reasons, family reasons, turns out not to be the job they want. But often, there is something else going on. And a couple of conversations (thanks to the universal law of 'six-degrees of separation') can quickly get you closer to the truth.
The number one reason people leave jobs and companies is to escape their boss. CEOs are just like the rest of us. An unexpected CEO departure frequently has its roots in the relationship between the CEO and the board, often the board chair. There is a mis-alignment of vision. There is no chemistry. The CEO isn't listening or open to coaching. The board chair is meddling. The board is being pressured by key stakeholders around results. The board has questions about the CEO's style, decisions, leadership effectiveness. The CEO railroads the board. The board tramples the CEO. The board is suspicious information is being withheld. The CEO is suspicious the board is talking to people behind his back. The board feels the CEO they have isn't the one they thought they hired. The CEO discovers the job she was pitched doesn't match the one she is doing. With one CEO and 10 board members, most of whom have pretty strong egos, the potential for dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics to emerge is not insignificant. And once it starts, it does not take much to spiral someone right out the door. That person is, almost always, the CEO.
This takes me back to my first question: does it matter to stakeholders when boards don't tell the whole truth about why the CEO is leaving?
A version of this article was first published in my monthly HR column on Troy Media June 24, 2015.
I recently read a blog by marketing guru and all-round provocative thinker Seth Godin entitled “The fruitless search for extraordinary people willing to take ordinary jobs” (June 4, 2015). It took me back to a board room conversation about executive pay. Every company has a ‘compensation philosophy’ that it uses to guide how it sets the pay of employees, from the CEO on down. We talked about the challenges we were having meeting the performance expectations of shareholders and our need to increase the level of talent in the organization. Then, as if we had just forgotten the previous conversation, we reconfirmed our compensation policy - to target pay at the market median (otherwise known as ‘average’). We were doing exactly what Mr. Godin proposes as lunacy - expecting above-average talent to deliver above-average results for average pay. Guilty as charged. Reflecting on this got me thinking about other ways organizations and leaders ‘kill’ the potential for excellence:
Rate everyone’s performance as ‘above expectations’. A few years ago I had the opportunity to help a client ‘fix’ their performance review process. We discovered there was nothing wrong with the performance criteria, the forms or the process. The problem was the ratings - the average performance score was 4.2/5. Only 10% of employees scored a 3 (‘meets expectations’) and no one scored less. If the organization was delivering exceptional results perhaps this statistical improbability could be overlooked. But it wasn’t. The organization was reinforcing average performance and getting exactly what it deserved - average results.
Reward loyalty and effort. Long-service, loyalty and effort are all laudable and should be encouraged. But they are insufficient if the goal is to create organization excellence. The world stopped being a meritocracy several decades ago. One of the most common reasons I hear for keeping long-serving but poor-performing employees around is their knowledge and institutional memory. We are in the information age. It is time to think long and hard about how you are managing and transferring knowledge in your enterprise. The statute of limitations on gold service pins has run out.
Offer a defined benefit pension plan. You are not enjoying one of these unless employed by a large corporation or anything resembling a government. Had I understood the implications of the pension when I was 20, I would now be happily retired and vacationing on a desert isle. Pensions are wonderful things and of tremendous benefit to employees and society, and I wish we all had one. They are also guaranteed to stop people who really need to get out and do other things from voluntarily leaving your organization.
Ask extraordinary people to work for average leaders. Talent is attracted to talent. If your goal is to bring in exceptional people, you need to staff your leadership roles with people who will inspire and engage them. A strategy of recruiting exceptional people to shore up an organization’s weaknesses is guaranteed to create a revolving door.
Make personal development optional. My job requires me to regularly ask people ‘what is on your current development agenda?’ The answers I typically hear makes me want to tear my hair out. ‘Nothing really’ or ‘I actually don’t have a development plan right now’, or ‘I still need to have that conversation with my boss.’ I used to think people were busy working away on things designed to help them get better and just didn’t want to tell me about it. I turned out to be wrong. Many of us don’t seem particularly concerned about honing our performance, as if personal excellence has little to do with organizational excellence. Leaders, when they put off having those conversations with their teams, are complicit. Organizations who take a casual attitude toward people development will never deliver consistently outstanding results. Because for a business to survive these days requires constant improvement, and we’re not just talking about processes and IT systems.
Building and sustaining organizational excellence requires exceptional people dedicated to the task and supported by the right values, expectations, processes and leadership. Jack Welch was a lighthouse for all of us on the topic of organizational excellence. As the CEO of GE he taught us exceptional performance is a relentless and disciplined pursuit, not a happy accident. Jack may have retired and moved on, but that idea still burns bright.
Seth Godin, June 4, 2015.
If It Talks Like a Duck: How Confusing Leadership Presence with Leadership Effectiveness Leads to Bad Hiring Decisions
Taylor is one of those confident, outgoing guys who stands out in a crowd. He looks like a leader, talks like a leader, and collects fans the way charismatic types do. He has built an impressive career. When I asked him what has been key to his success, he spoke about the importance of never staying too long in any one job or organization and being aggressive and aspirational in pursuing the next opportunity. The funny thing about Taylor is, if you stop and objectively evaluate his success beyond the positions he’s held, he comes up short. While he’s been successful, the projects he’s managed, the teams he’s built, the businesses he’s led have not been particularly remarkable or successful. In fact, he is someone who consistently disappoints. In his case, moving from one company and opportunity to another helped him evade questions about his real effectiveness. Because Taylor looks like a leader and talks like a leader, people have - erroneously - assumed he is a leader. This is a common, and potentially disastrous, human decision-making error: confusing leadership presence with leadership effectiveness.
It is this very human error that tends to get us, as citizens, into trouble in the political realm. We are naturally attracted to those candidates who possess leader-like qualities and we get behind them. It isn’t until after the fact we discover that, sometimes, looking like a leader and sounding like a leader does not translate into an ability to lead.
It is this same human error that gets CEOs and boards into trouble when they make judgments and decisions about personnel. When we use ‘executive presence’ as a proxy for effectiveness, we run the risk of hiring or promoting someone who proves unable to translate their leadership presence into results.
Strategies to Avoid Getting Duped by Leaders Who are ‘Big Hat, No Cattle’
There are things you can do to avoid hiring people who possess more leadership presence, confidence and ambition than they do real ability.
Be aware of the natural tendency to be attracted to and distracted by leadership presence. Knowledge is power. If you know we tend to correlate leadership emergence with effectiveness you can guard against it. When you hear yourself thinking or saying ‘she really stands out as a leader,’ follow up with ‘I wonder how effective she really is.’
Seek out and supplement intuition with hard data. Sometimes it is easier to make judgments and get to the heart of someone’s effectiveness when there isn’t so much veneer. When there is a lot of veneer, this is the time to be more diligent in supporting your gut reaction with facts. Expand the reference pool and dig deeper. I recently did a 360- feedback process for someone who got glowing reviews from everyone I spoke with. It wasn’t until I dug in and asked about results that I heard things like "yeah, I really like her and would work with her again in a second, but to be honest, while she did okay she really wasn’t as successful as we were expecting". Things to watch out for include: a track record of promotions generated by moving between rather than within an organization and frequent job changes before results can be adequately assessed.
Psychometrics can be your friend. In my leadership practice I use both in-depth interviews as well as psychometrics (you know, those pesky online leadership assessments) to understand leadership effectiveness. They can provide important supplemental information about leadership style and personality variables that are missed by interviewers. Leader-like people perform exceptionally well in interviews. Good psychometric tools can help to tease out leadership presence from leadership effectiveness so you don’t get duped.
Know when to cut your losses
We all make mistakes, sometimes in spite of our diligence. It can be hard to face up to bad decisions - it is embarrassing to admit you have mis-judged someone. Discovering your new CEO isn’t very effective in leading the people or the business is a hard pill to swallow. But leadership effectiveness requires the building of managerial ‘muscle’ and ‘scar tissue’ over time and experience. Can you afford to try and transform this leader’s emergence into effectiveness at this stage in their career? If the answer is ‘no’, best to move on. If the answer is ‘yes’, you will need to figure out how you are going to do that. Step one is convincing that leader she is not as effective as she believes herself to be. It isn’t impossible, but it is probably not going to be very easy. After all, look at her track record.
What to Do if This is You
What if you are the person who possesses tremendous leadership presence but hasn’t been able to translate it into real and sustained leadership success? Sometimes our self-confidence and belief that we ought to be in charge can get in the way of the vulnerability that is required to actually learn how to be effective. The good news is, you are starting from a position of strength - people already see you as a leader. Here are some strategies to get you on your way.
Admit you may not be as great as you think you are. As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step. My favourite people to work with are those who see themselves as always coming up short and in constant need of development to improve as leaders. Not surprisingly, these are usually the people who are most effective and need my help the least. When you say you want to improve, do you really mean that or is it a superficial acknowledgement? Where is the evidence to back up your commitment to change? Are you prepared to do the work?
Seek a deeper level of self-awareness. Not all of us are blessed with penetrating insight into who we are and what makes us tick. Strategies for supplementing your own insight include 360-reviews and those pesky psychometrics. These tools are designed to tell you, in very objective terms, about you.
Get professional help. I know that you don’t just want to be a leader, you want to be a good leader. If being an effective leader were so easy, you would have figured it out by now. It isn’t easy. So admit you need help transforming yourself into the leader you want to be and seek out the help and support of someone who can really help you make that happen. This isn’t a 30-day program. This is a lifelong pursuit.
This article was inspired by a webinar entitled The Impact of Narcissism on Leadership courtesy of Hogan Assessments (www.hoganassessments.com), the Alberta provincial election, and at least one ‘big hat, no cattle’ leader I’ve bumped into recently.
A version of this article was first published in my monthly Troy Media column and can be viewed at http://www.troymedia.com/2015/03/30/tips-to-becoming-a-strategic-thinker/
Last week I started working with a leader who suddenly finds herself on the executive team. A corporate restructuring caused her to skip a level and now she is sitting around the table asking, ‘am I strategic enough to do this job?’ Her question is not unique. Twenty years of working with leaders on their development has taught me there are 3 leadership success factors executives worry about most: public speaking, financial acumen and strategic thinking. The typical solution for the leader who wants to be more strategic is to attend an executive education program called something like "Strategic Planning for Executives". What usually happens is they take the program, have a wonderful time, develop some really good peer connections, and then complain the course was aboutplanning not strategic thinking.
What is strategic thinking?
Strategic thinkers demonstrate the following characteristics:
Can strategic thinking be learned?
First, the bad news. Everyone’s brain is wired differently. Some people are profoundly creative. Others have an intuitive sense around people. Your brain is your brain. Best to know what it does well, and where the wires don’t connect.
Now, the good news. If you understand how your brain works, and you know what you want it to do, you can apply it in new ways.
How to be more strategic
Not every strategist will be a leader, and not every leader will be a strategist. Being a strategic leader is a combination of strategic thinking and strategic action.
Tactics for developing strategic thinking include:
Tactics for developing strategic actions include:
Everyone wants to be strategic. While you might not be the most strategic thinker by nature, strategic action can be nurtured.
I sit on the board of a not-for-profit organization engaged in transforming leadership in the not-for-profit sector and we design and deliver a lot of governance education to executive directors and their boards. We strive to lead by example and model what we teach. We just completed our annual board evaluation process and many things are going extremely well in how we operate and govern. And then there is this comment: “We need to be careful to keep taking the longer view - we easily slip into the weeds in discussion.” Sigh. We are just like everybody else.
Pretty much every chief executive I have ever worked with has logged the same ‘observation’ of the board: they can get awfully mired in the detail. When I try to reassure them their experience is not unique, I tend to get a look of profound skepticism. Because when you are the chief executive and your board is triple-checking the math or debating the word in a sentence, you can get a little paranoid. A board that dives down and gets stuck in the weeds is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception. This dynamic occurs even though directors would rather shoot themselves than be described as tactical or meddling.
One of the most difficult and often unexpected tasks a chief executive undertakes is the management of his or her board. A first-time CEO is often blown over by the nuanced complexity of this task. And for some reason, prior experience as a board member seems to be little pre-requisite for effectively managing your own board.
Rather than write one more article reminding us all of the role of the board and the difference between governance and management, I thought it might be worth exploring - from the point of view of a psychologist - why the ‘detail-absorbed board’ phenomena is so prevalent and what you can do to alleviate it.
Why boards get in the weeds
Some of the reasons boards struggle with maintaining a strategic focus have more to do with being human than they do with being a board member.
The human brain uses data and detail to create big pictures and spot trends. Our brains formulate narratives by accumulating details. Because the board member’s brain actively engages with the organization sporadically, it takes time, and a lot of data, to build up a coherent picture and elevate facts to insight. Management tries to help by providing (often hundreds of pages of) information which it expects board members to digest in 7 days or less. It reminds me of my first week in graduate school when each professor handed out 350 pages of reading for discussion in next week’s class. When board members ask a lot of detail-oriented questions, it is probably because their brains are still trying to piece together information and make sense of it. And some brains require (and adore) more data than others. Given the nature of the human brain, it is possible that ‘dropping into’ an organization a few times a year may not be an ideal rhythm when the goal of the board is to provide strategic oversight and input.
The role of the board member is complex and multi-faceted. In the world of not-for-profit board governance and leadership excellence, we talk about three roles boards play: fiduciary, strategic and generative (Chait & Ryan & Taylor, 2005). Fiduciary responsibility is a natural draw for the detail-oriented. Strategic responsibility can also elicit its fair share of detailed questioning as board members seek to understand an organization’s priorities, rationale and method of executing on those priorities. Generative responsibility is the playground for future-oriented, strategic, conceptual thought. It needs more than a 10-minute time slot. If you look at your board meeting agenda and the topics up for discussion, it will probably become painfully clear why board members show up with their pencils sharpened.
Under stress, strategists become obsessive-compulsive detail-oriented problem-solvers. Personality is a funny thing. There are our normal tendencies and then there are our stress behaviours. For some strange reason, stress behaviour is often the exact opposite of normal behaviour. Since the issues boards face are rarely run-of-the-mill, are frequently high-stakes, and the voting members do not have any control over their execution, stress responses kick in. Suddenly you find yourself staring down a group of highly strategic people who all want to dive in and solve the problem - or even argue about the right method to solve the problem - instead of formulating brilliant questions that cast a light on the shadowy corners.
How to elevate the contribution of the board
There is a tendency for us to make assumptions and draw conclusions about the character and competency of board members when it might be more helpful to take a step back and think about them as human machines with predictable patterns of behaviour. If you can anticipate, you can try to over-ride. Here are three suggestions for facilitating the strategic contribution of the board:
Manage the human brain. The way information is prioritized and communicated can lighten the cognitive load and help the board maintain a strategic focus. If you communicate strategically, you increase the likelihood of getting strategic input in return.
Make space for generative contribution. Recognize the board is being asked to play multiple roles. If you want a strategic contribution you have to create the time and headspace for that. The middle of the audit committee meeting may not be the best place to insert a conceptual discussion about the evolution of the risk management model.
Anticipate stress reactions. When people walk into a room to deal with an issue, they have probably had just a few days or weeks to get their heads into it and, suddenly, you are asking them to make a high-stakes decision. As a board member, what I hate most is being surprised with something and then told a decision is urgent. What it says to me is that the chief executive is a) not on top of the business, b) lacks respect for me, my role and my decision-making process and/or, c) wants to rush something through before I’ve had a chance to think about it. If you are going to ask the board to confront an important decision that will likely cause anxiety, plan for that.
A board can make a significant contribution beyond fiduciary due diligence. And this is, in fact, why most people sign up to serve. Not just for the pleasure of combing through financial statements and risk management policies, but also to ignite the strategic capacity of an organization. Do they get too stuck in the detail? Probably. And, maybe, it isn’t just their fault.
Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Richard Chait, William Ryan & Barbara E. Taylor. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2005.