Note: This article is part of an ongoing series on Board Directors. To learn more about their roles and responsibilities, download this free eBook today Director's Guidebook: How to be an Effective Board Director in Early Stage Companies or purchase our books at Amazon.com.
Ever heard an orchestra, say of fourth graders, who were all playing at different tempos? When you think of the organizations you were part of over the years, how important was teamwork to the group’s ultimate success or failure? Whether playing on a sports team, working at a non-profit, or running a big business, great teamwork is the foundation for success.
Teamwork doesn’t just happen on its own. Fast boats have coxswains. Beautiful orchestras have conductors. And great teams have coaches. Effective coaches, CEOs, and directors understand the importance of building personal relationships within any organization as the pathway to good teamwork. Coordinating with someone requires knowing them.
When an individual understands that the team’s success is more important than their own personal success, the organization can thrive. When it’s everyone for themselves, organizations will typically fail. Strong, interpersonal relationships help weave the fabric from which great teamwork is ultimately created.
Just as you would expect to see the senior management team of a company work as a cohesive unit, you should expect to see a board of directors work that way. But, there is one major difference between a board and the senior management team, and that is time. By “time”, I mean the amount of time each of these groups is working together. Senior managers work side by side for 50 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Boards get together for a half day, 6 to 12 times a year. As I am sure you can imagine, it’s a lot harder to build those personal relationships when you are together so infrequently.
Fortunately boards work within relatively narrow parameters, so the knowledge of each other can be more narrow and focused. But it still takes work to get people in sync. So, it’s time to turn the pen over to Christopher and see what specific recommendations he has for building relationships and getting directors on the same page.
Q: Christopher, what’s your simplest suggestion that will allow directors to build trust and respect for one another?
The easiest way to do this is to tack a little time onto the in-person board meetings. Board dinners the night before or just after are a time-honored tradition because they work so well as team building exercises. As we have noted in terms of evaluating CEOs, there is value in getting away from the conference table and talking about topics other than work or the company. This builds rapport and deepens relationships.
One mistake you sometimes see with board dinners is people making them too big and diluting the dynamic. You should keep a board dinner limited to just the directors. There is time for management team members to get in front of the board during meetings - the dinner is not a good time.
If you cannot pull off a dinner, at least you can schedule a meeting to start early and include some breakfast time together before the meeting agenda starts. And, I have seen it work reasonably well to protect some time in the form of a lunch break where board members can have some unstructured time in the room to chat while grabbing a bite. Other tricks for boards with traveling members can include giving rides or sharing cabs to the airport.
And, although it is very board-centric and does not work as well as an offsite event, there is some bonding value in the executive session for the board at the end of the meeting.
Q: Those are great ideas, but won’t it take a long time to build relationships this way?
Yes, it does. But experienced directors will pay attention to it and put the effort in because they know the value. And there are some ways to accelerate the process. For boards looking to bolster relationships quickly, I suggest members consider some of the following “board hacks:”
Get together with fellow board members for a coffee or lunch;
Arrange for an occasional one-on-one phone call about the company between board members;
Volunteer for an ad hoc committee or special project with someone you know less well;
Ask another board member for their input on a board task you have been assigned;
If you are joining an already established board as the new person, do a structured listening tour where you seek out the other board members’ perspectives. A very effective approach to this kind of listening tour is the lightweight “visualization” approach where you ask directors to list their top 3 positives on the company, their top 3 concerns, and to describe where they think the company will or should be in 5 years (To the extent you see big variation in these responses, that can be fodder for a future board discussion).
Q: Do you think it’s appropriate for board members to discuss the company with one another when they get together outside of a regular board meeting?
Yes, absolutely. Directors have duties of confidentiality when talking to outsiders, but they are free to discuss company business amongst themselves in private settings where they will not be overheard. It is important to make sure you are staying in alignment. Teams that work off the same game plan achieve greater success than ones that don’t.
That said, there are limitations to this approach. You want to avoid situations where “the meeting happens before the meeting” - certain blocks of directors get together and decide everything ahead of time, excluding others from the discussion and then ramming their majority viewpoint home in meetings. Not only can this serve to isolate or marginalize directors who might otherwise have had very valuable input, it can undermine teamwork. And where there are cross-gender or other diversity factors involved, it can exacerbate concerns over discriminatory behaviors. So by all means make sure you create opportunities to speak 1:1 with all your fellow directors, but don’t ever allow yourself to slip into being part of a board room clique.
Q: Can you give us some examples of what happens when you don’t build strong personal relationships on a board?
Have you ever seen or heard of a situation where one parent tells the child they can’t go to a concert, and the other parent contradicts? What does that teach the child? That the parent who says no has no authority? That they can forum shop for the answer they want?
The same dynamic occurs with boards. If directors are not on the same page, or at least do not bite their tongue in the moment and support each other, it sends a very muddy signal to the management team and it greatly undermines the board’s authority. Try to get on the same page with key issues, and back each other up even when you have a slightly different viewpoint. If you really cannot agree, then find a way to table the discussion and come back to it when you have had a chance to get aligned.
Likewise, when one director is a total worrywart and other directors are big picture glass half-full people, it can send a confusing message to management. Worried directors make for worried CEOs and management teams. If there is a director with a specific set of concerns, turn the focus to ways to attack the problem head on and ways to mitigate the risks. Don’t contradict, or confuse.
Where directors are not on the same page, it can lead to conflict in the boardroom. Confrontational environments where everyone is disagreeing and arguing all the time are not good environments for moving forward on shared strategies and tactics. It can lead to internal confusion for the team, as well as a lack of focus and a lack of direction. The board dynamic should be a source of guidance and support for the team, not strife and tension. Left to really fester, serious board disagreements can even lead to leaks that are damaging for the company or back-biting comments which reflect poorly on the individuals involved.
Get it together and get on the same page!
Want to learn more about the roles and responsibilities of Directors? Download this free eBook today Director's Guidebook: How to be an Effective Board Director in Early Stage Companies or purchase our books at Amazon.com.