Guest Blog by John Balkcom
The board chair by definition and by charter is assigned to be the leader in the boardroom. But board members, especially when selected well, are rarely known for their willingness to follow. What’s a board chair to do? Here are my recommendations based on years of service on both for-profit and non-profit boards.
1. Invoke “team up” instead of “man up.”
As a guest speaker in a recent business school class on governance, I asked, “What does a group of guys usually do when they get together?” A young man in the back responded firmly, “Man up!” Then, I asked, “Okay, what does a group of women usually do when they get together?” A young woman in the front row asked quietly, “Team up?” The distinction between the general tendency of men to man up and compete, on the one hand, and of women to collaborate, on the other, provides a useful guide to the behavior most often needed in the boardroom. The chair’s role is to get team performance out of a group that convenes far less frequently than it divides and conquers, each in his or her own profession. The chair sets the board’s team culture.
2. As board chair, show your hand.
Since boards have such limited time, there is no room for guessing games about the top issues. While the chair and the CEO may consult on the formal agenda and distribute it before meetings, the listed topics rarely convey the urgency of opportunities and threats. The chair (or lead director) faces the immediate task of sorting the presentations and issues into those most deserving focused attention from all board members and, when needed, altering the formal agenda to allow shared, imaginative thinking to seize the opportunities and minimize the threats. Accordingly, the chair must show his or her hand at all times so that no board time is lost on worthless excursions, and so that board members know where to follow.
3. Lead with listening and questions.
Ken Daly of the National Association of Corporate Directors once said that boards most need diversity in styles of thinking. When a board has this diversity of thinking–in addition to diversity of age, gender, ethnicity, and expertise–its value is maximized by a chair who asks for views that differ from dominant or historical views, and who gives alternate solutions a full hearing. There is no room for one-upmanship of the CEO or other board members. The chair’s invocation of constructive, clarifying questions, coupled with insistence on full participation by all board members, increase the likelihood of actionable innovation in the boardroom.
As board chair, create a high-performance board team, show your hand, and lead with listening and questions.
John Balkcom lives in Denver, where he sits on four boards, two for-profit and two non-profit, one of which he chairs, including the governing board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. He retired in 2000 after 25 years as a management consultant. After his consulting career, John served for almost three years as president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.