A strong, unified board is made up of emotionally connected experts. Each of these experts has probably spent time in their field as a leader. The question that we get asked often is, how do we get independent-minded directors to pull the wagon in the same direction?
In my conversation with Kim Chatani, an independent board director for several U.S. organizations, we both agreed that it really comes down to three points: developing a safe space for directors, giving directors the power to move from day-to-day leading to higher-level oversight, and encouraging the development of soft skills of stewardship.
Kim and I have both worked with many different boards at different levels of maturity. We could easily see that the best leaders don’t make people feel embarrassed or incompetent — they give each director the safety to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand,” then empower them by giving them the opportunity to learn.
Directors tend to be naturally inquisitive — they want to learn and grow as individuals and as a team in the safety of the boardroom. Strong leaders are consistently monitoring risks to the organization and making sure that qualified candidates are nominated and retained.
Board leaders should not be afraid or hesitant to bring in expert assistance to help directors understand the intricacies of rules and regulations that govern their industry. A well-balanced and respectful boardroom allows necessary interactions to take place.
Strong board leadership does not minimize the role of individual board members — instead, they embrace it.
Imagine a board as an orchestra and the chairman of the board as its conductor. It is not hard to imagine a composed orchestra requires many different instruments in order to play beautiful music; it is the same for a successful boardroom. To guide the organization to achieve its goals, the board needs to be in synchrony. This must be done as part of a collaborative process.
Many new directors face the challenge of transitioning from day-to-day management to a higher-level oversight. “A new director needs to learn to ‘let go,'” Chatani says. “Many have referred to this as a ‘nose in, fingers out’ approach. This means asking the right questions, but not meddling.”
This transition process could be difficult for some new directors coming directly from a management role. For the board to be collectively effective, it must establish a working environment with management that is built on creating emotional connection, safety and trust.
New directors pick up the sense of comfort and trust between the board and the executive team pretty quickly. When the board’s culture is based on nurturing bonds and emotional connection with the executive team, the interaction creates a positive experience, which reinforces new directors to feel safe and connected among directors.
One way directors can let go of the day to day and start focusing on seeing the forest through the trees is by focusing on their soft skills. They can start thinking of themselves as stewards of the company rather than autonomous leaders.
These skills include empathy, validation, reflection, reframing and care. All these skills come out of a commitment to emotional connection.
By recognizing how emotion affects actions and decisions, directors can become ever more accessible, responsive and engaged with each other and with the members of the management team. This means that even though they may be feeling stressed, they are responsive when others need them, and they are able to remain emotionally engaged even though they may not agree with the proposal or the final decision. We are talking about a very special kind of emotional presence that provides the safety cue for the brain to remain in emotional balance.
This initial shift into emotional connection will naturally lead to a development of soft skills like empathy and validation.
Every board faces different challenges because every board is comprised of human emotions. A successful board enables these powerful emotions to fuel creativity, curiosity and growth of the organization. When we consider that, it is far easier to conduct the orchestra with emotion as the music.
Is your boardroom ready to take on the challenge and morph into a creative, dynamic and sustainable unit that is capable of having independent-minded directors pulling the wagon in the same direction?
Are you ready to tackle this challenge and keep your “nose in, fingers out”?
As directors hone their soft skills, they can become more effective collaborators. It may be a tough transition for some boards, but the benefits are enormous.