The diplomatic challenges of chairing board meetings
Boardroom discussions around the world will have a similar flavour at the moment. The economic and market challenges mean that decisions need to be made, and quickly. Deciding not to do something is as important as acting. You may make the call to respond to what turns out to be only short-term pressure. In doing so, boards may live to regret deviating from their long-term strategy.
Our tolerance to risk is being tested. Who would blame a board that turns to the chief financial officer to look at ways to cut costs and bring in more cash? Yet that might conflict with other priorities, such as retaining and recruiting skilled staff, something that will be front of mind for any HR director given today’s tight labour markets.
Another pressure point is the post-pandemic “working from home” culture. No one should be surprised that businesses start testing assumptions here. Whatever WFH advocates claim about how remote is best for both individuals and businesses, as companies look to find ways to improve productivity there will be changes made.
Against such a backdrop, I find chairing meetings of any kind quite challenging. It takes real effort to get the optimum balance of keeping everyone to the agenda, focusing on the priority decisions, managing the timing (without cutting too many people off) and most of all facilitating a meaningful discussion where the right questions get asked and hopefully answered.
This means that everyone needs to have their say, in a non-hierarchical way, without the quieter ones being drowned out by their more vocal colleagues. The very best meetings have the active ingredient of healthy tension, where our differences are based upon our interpretation of the facts and do not become interpersonal differences driven by egos, emotions and “how we used to do it”.
Sometimes just to add to the healthy tension mix, I ask the team something like: “If Elon Musk ran our company, what would we be doing differently?”
Real conflicts between individuals do need ironing out, as I discovered when I joined the accounting software business IRIS Software as chief executive and inherited two key heads of functional areas who hardly talked to each other directly after an age-old feud.
It took time out together to help them to realise that they had more in common than they realised, including a shared purpose. The chairman and/or the chief executive do have a responsibility to address such conflicts, rather than let them fester.
It sounds obvious, but I have seen too many examples of where division in the senior team has simply been accepted and resulted in poor decision-making and low morale.
For many years I ran private equity-backed businesses. Board meetings were monthly, increasingly data-intensive and challenging, although on occasions they could be like a painful session with the Spanish Inquisition.
When moving from chief executive to chairman I have found that the acid test for a productive board meeting is one where the executive directors tell me that the meeting was a valuable use of their time. If it was not, they explain why that was the case and what we can do about it to support them.
Although I have said that interpersonal differences are best kept to the sidelines in the decision-making process, diversity of approach and thought are clearly essential. It means that we all need to understand how each of us ticks. A few years ago I ran a board strategy session at Leathwaite International, an executive search specialist that I also chair, using Edward de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats. I find it a useful tool. For example a black hat person usually lists the drawbacks/risks of a decision, a yellow hat sees the benefits and a red hat relies on instincts. Having identified the usual style of a team member, we got them to try one or more different hats/perspectives. Getting the most risk-averse person in the room to see opportunity through the eyes of someone who only sees opportunity, and vice versa, flips us outside our habitual ways of thinking. We can all get a bit stuck in our ways.
When I joined Ground Control the directors Simon and Kim Morrish asked me to complete an Insights Discovery Psychometric profile. I will admit that I had always been cynical about the value of psychometrics and was a bit wary. But in this case, a comparatively short questionnaire delivered a report that was extraordinarily accurate. I am now a complete convert.
We use it as part of our interview process but it also helps us to understand the balance in our leadership team of red people (competitive/determined), green (caring/encouraging), yellow (enthusiastic/inspiring) and blue (cautious/precise). We all have a different mix of these elements in our personalities so it is about understanding the key drivers of personality and thought processes of ourselves and our colleagues. Most of all it is about recognising and valuing the different perspectives that each of us bring and that are vital to effective collaboration.
Another change we have made to respond to these uncertain times has been to move from monthly/bi-monthly board meetings to quarterly meetings, plus an annual budget review and a strategy offsite. Fewer meetings sounds counter-intuitive, given how quickly things are moving. We still receive monthly performance decks but by focusing our board discussion on the quarter, rather than the monthly variations, we are getting a better insight into underlying performance trends, sales pipeline and delivery and quality indicators.
It helps to avoid short-term reactive responses, particularly to underperformance, allowing us to take a slightly longer-term view in a particularly challenging climate.