Courageous Board Conversations
November 03, 2019 by Tony Chapman
In an organisational context, one of the ultimate arenas for courage and vulnerability is the Boardroom. Courage is about taking action despite the existence of fear, and as such requires the presence of vulnerability – to own your fear, and to accept that the ideal outcome is not necessarily a certainty, and in fact, that negative consequences may arise.
From my 25 years as a Board Director, I know that courage around the board table is critical, but many still fall far short of reaching their potential.
In 2016, consulting firm Russell Reynolds conducted a Global Board Culture Survey to look at behaviours that drive Board effectiveness. As it turns out, the top five behaviours are all underpinned by courage:
- Possessing the courage to do the right thing for the right reasons.
- Willing to constructively challenge management, when appropriate.
- Demonstrate sound business judgement.
- Ask the right questions.
- Possess independent perspective, and avoid ‘groupthink’.
These can play out in many ways. Some examples I’ve encountered (drawn from just the last three months) include:
- A Director wanting to raise a contrary point of view when all the other Directors appeared to be unified behind a different way forward… and that Director remaining silent.
- A Director not understanding the rationale for the decision made…. but not questioning it.
- A Board whose decisions were consistently much more conservative than their stated risk appetite. A recent Australian Institute of Company Director Sentiment Index found that ‘70 percent of respondents agreed there is a risk adverse culture on Australian Boards’.
- A Board whose Vision and strategy lacked boldness. This is okay for Boards aspiring to be average or play small, but strategy in the better organisations inevitably reflects a degree of courage.
- A Board who failed to do the ‘right thing’ at the right time, because it was easier and less costly to allow things to play out as they were.
What holds us back in these defining moments? What stops us from raising our concerns, pushing our point or just simply speaking up?
Most commonly it’s fear. Fear of looking stupid, fear of losing money or reputation, fear of the discomfort inherent in healthy debate. In these defining moments it takes courage to speak up. Feeling fear or feeling vulnerable is not a reason to hold back, but instead an indicator that we have something important to raise or do.
The good news is that there are some simple, practical strategies for Board and Directors to engage more courageously:
- Have a conversation around the Board table about courage. Courage looks different to everyone, and there’s a big opportunity to define and discuss what courage actually looks like in terms of the behaviours and decisions made.
- Include courage as an item in the annual Board Performance Review.
- Include courage as a consideration in the end-of-meeting Review.
- Test the organisation’s strategy for the presence of a degree of boldness.
- Learn about the other Directors natural communication styles and adapt your own communication to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to raise concerns, issues and ideas.
- Have the Chair model courage in the way the Board is led.
Courage shows up differently for each of us. What will you do to bring more courage to the Board room table?
‘Global Board Culture Survey – Understanding the Behaviours that Drive Board Effectiveness’ Russell Reynolds Associates 2016
Tony Chapman, Director of SRA Corporate Change