By Paul Dubal, Governance Coach
Does Your Board of Directors Look Good or Do Good?
Leadership is a curious thing. People have different interpretations of what being an effective leader looks like. I have had many interesting debates with colleagues and associates about what constitutes an effective leader. Indeed, the whole concept of leadership has evolved over time to the extent that there is no truly universal definition of what makes a good leader. This can be problematic when it comes to board selection because there may be disagreement about exactly what the board needs of its leaders as the strategy develops.
Having sat in boardrooms for the last 25 years I have had the privilege to experience many different styles of leadership, and the attributes that come with them. I have seen an evolution in leadership within that time. When I first attended board meetings as a young corporate secretary, I encountered many intimidating (mainly male) directors who shared similar traits. They were dogmatic, ego driven and always right. Their deep knowledge and experience, combined with a track record of success meant that you crossed them at your peril. They knew best and any challenge to their authority in boardroom debates was seen as a personal attack. This sometimes manifested itself in an explosive counterattack, especially if the challenger was a new director or perceived as less experienced, having the audacity to challenge the wisdom of the vastly more talented senior director.
These directors prided themselves on being considered as strong and authoritative leaders who were steadfast. Changing their mind, even in the face of supporting evidence, was considered a weakness, an admission that they had somehow got it wrong the first time. The decisions they made spoke more about themselves than the company. They feared looking bad, and their personal reputation outweighed the interests of the organization they served. At the time I did not fully appreciate this style of leadership for what it was, although having subsequently read “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” a book on the fall of Enron, I noted that its corporate culture valued the characteristics I saw displayed in those boardrooms earlier on in my career.
These types of directors usually held senior positions in the corporate world. My experience in the many large companies I worked for tended to follow a similar pattern. The people who got promoted were those who avoided confrontation and did not challenge the status quo. They usually agreed with their boss and focused on looking good and were able to present articulately (“talking the talk” as we called it) in order to stand out and get noticed. These people tended to get fast tracked for promotion, and it certainly did them no harm if they were able to drop a hint to their superiors that their peers were just not up to scratch. Socialising, networking, and politicking are arguably good skills to advance your career and enhance people’s perception of you. That is why political leaders spend so much time and effort on approval ratings, because they are usually elected based on how people feel about them. However, those skills are more personal; they do not generally benefit the organization. These are not the skills that make an effective director.
In more recent times sitting in board rooms, I have seen a softening of the ‘scary’ director into a style of leadership that was more focused on getting things done rather than worrying about how others perceived them. This means that individual directors have the courage to ask challenging questions or take unpopular decisions if they genuinely believe it is in the best interests of the organization. I do not believe that it is coincidental that the evolution of the style of leadership that put the organization first seemed to run in parallel with the increase in women directors. I have seen directors act with clarity and purpose, delivering their message in a way that leaves the executive team in no doubt about what needs to be done. They lead with challenging questions in a way that is respectful but firm. They know how to avoid conflict and deal with it in a productive way when it does arise. Yet they are also humble enough to be active listeners and to adjust their position in the light of new information, without concern for keeping up appearances. A board composed of these types of directors gets things done, and this attitude has a ripple effect through the organization. Selecting the right director for a board is a complex exercise, and there is a greater recognition of the value that a director with strong emotional and social awareness can bring to the table.
The perception of what constitutes an effectiveness director, an authentic leader who leads from the front is still evolving. At The Governance Boutique, experts in getting you board ready, we can provide individual coaching and guidance specifically geared to your needs, to help you be the director that gets things done without scaring everyone around you.