Let  me ask you: as a board member – how many times have you left a board meeting with one or more of the below feelings about the meeting?

  1. The meeting was ineffective, time was wasted going in circles, resulting in going way over time or ending before the entire agenda had been addressed
  2. The decisions made were mediocre but necessary due to compromise, politics, conflicting agendas
  3. There are resources and knowledge in the room that do not come to the surface due to personal styles and possibly conflicting agendas
  4. You are uncertain about the degree of commitment behind the decisions made

Group dynamics are always challenging, but boards face a particular challenge because of the limited contact. This makes it even more crucial that board members are able to get the most out of the time spent together.

Can you imagine if your life depended on the effectiveness of your board’s ability to solve problems? What would you do if that were the case? And what is holding you back from doing that now? Maybe it’s not life-or-death decisions being made, but they still have the potential to impact many people’s lives. Boards have a powerful impact on the organisations they serve, but how much attention is paid to team effectiveness? In my experience, little or none.

We assume that, by putting the right composition of knowledge and political agendas in a room, the best solutions will come out of it. Not true! All research into effective team dynamics indicates that the most effective teams are not those with the smartest people, but those with the ability to bring the collective knowledge into play.

I use the below model to measure and develop the effectiveness of teams. The most effective teams create solutions with the highest QUALITY solutions with the highest level og ACCEPTANCE. Take a moment to evaluate how your board measures up to this definition by answering the following questions:

On a scale of 1 to 5, when 1 is never, and 5 is always… Score (1-5)
  1. We analyse the situation before discussing solutions
  2. We define the objectives or success criteria for a given  issue we set out to solve
  3. We simplify the problem by breaking it down into sub-issues
  4. We consider many alternatives before jumping to conclusions
  5. We discuss the consequences of each possible solution before choosing one
TOTAL (Q)

The sum of your answers is your “Quality” score called “Q”.

 

Again, on a scale of 1 to 5, when 1 is never, and 5 is always… Score (1-5)
  1. We listen to each other
  2. We support each other
  3. We are open and curious about our differences
  4. We all participate
  5. We strive for consensus
TOTAL (A)

The sum of your answers is your “Acceptance” score called “A”.

What did you discover? Which score is the highest/lowest? Most will discover an imbalance between their Quality and their Acceptance scores. This indicates where to start. However, the bad news is – you do need both Quality and Acceptance to be high if you want your board meetings to be effective and to get the most out of the effort you put into them.

The question you are probably asking now is – great – but WHAT can we do about it? Figure 1 illustrates the elements required to ensure an optimal Quality and Acceptance in your efforts as a board.

In the following, I will share the three first steps I believe will move most boards towards greater effectiveness, addressing both Quality and Acceptance.

Build strong relationships between board members. This is the foundation on which the “Acceptance” dimension can grow. Constructive* relationships are open, honest and free from politics. Trust is built on the foundation of constructive relationships. This requires spending time together and exchanging honest feedback. This can be achieved in different ways. Some prefer to actually take time out and engage in traditional teambuilding. Others regard the actual challenges at hand as real-time teambuilding activities. In many cases, this requires outside help – as old patterns are hard to spot from the inside and even more difficult to address. The outside intervention can help keep the conversation constructive. One thing is for sure, although sharing a nice bottle of wine is a great way to get to know each other, it rarely leads to a deepening in the quality of relationships in a way that will positively impact the quality of cooperation.

*Here are some examples of constructive and non-constructive statements:

CONSTRUCTIVE STATEMENTS NON-CONSTRUCTIVE STATEMENTS
“You have a different viewpoint than me. Tell me more” “I am right – you are wrong.”

“I agree with you – to keep the peace”

“I am curious what I can learn from you.” “I can teach you a few things”
“I don’t agree with you” “You should respect me and my opinion”
“I will tell you what I think and feel even if it might hurt.” “I will keep my opinion to myself, just in case it’s not shared”
“Differences and tensions are an opportunity to learn.” “I avoid differences and tensions.”

 

So why develop constructive relationships?

The key building blocks to “Acceptance” are listening, supporting, exploring differences, broad participation, consensus-seeking. Constructive relationships are the foundation of all these behaviours.

Establish a shared ambition as the next step. Once you have established constructive relationships, and the trust builds, a lot will start to happen. I recommend that once you have an open and trusting climate – it’s time to revisit the conversation on ambitions and objectives. Do you actually share your ambitions for the company? And do you have a shared view of the objectives for this year, this quarter and for your impact as a board?

In my experience, this is a crucial conversation to have, and it will only have the quality and depth needed once you have established an honest, trusting and constructive environment. I encourage you to set aside time and have each member write down in specific terms what he or she wishes the company to achieve this year. Be as specific as possible – so hopefully there will be many post-its. Then prioritise them – first individually and then share from the top down. Where do you agree – where do you disagree – on ambitions and priorities? Are there any important conversations needed here? Invest the time to actually deal with the misalignments. Once you have a common picture and either agree or at least know where you don’t agree, it is time to make a plan for how to close the gaps and how to deal with the issues that require the gaps to be closed. This conversation will only end well if there is a constructive group dynamic.

Finally, clarify motivation. So many boards have gone awry due to conflicting personal or political agendas. By making personal agendas overt, you can deal with them. Many can be embraced within the realm of the board’s mandate, and few cannot. So, let’s get them out in the open. I encourage you to have the same conversation as above, only this time make it about what each individual’s personal ambition is for being on the board. Asking “What do I want to get out of my work on this board?”. You can do this in the same way as before – writing lots of post-its, then prioritising and sharing. This will not only surface similarities and differences and make them overt, but it will also reveal the motivation of the individuals and give some clues as to when and why members will tend to be more or less engaged. This is usually good information to have. It not only allows for differences in engagement throughout the year, it also allows for members to help each other achieve his or her goals while doing their board work.

Board work is challenging. Nothing indicates that the role of the board will become less important or easier in the near future. On the contrary. Honing your team dynamics is therefore a crucial lever for maximising your impact.

 

Originally published in Board Perspective