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Boardroom Influence - Part 2

Oct 09, 2022

What should you do when trust has been damaged between you and other board members? Is there a way to recover? Are there differences in how men and women cultivate influence? What adjustments are needed if the board meeting is virtual? And what ethical considerations crop up when it comes to influence between meetings?

We left some of these questions unanswered in last week’s edition of The Savvy Director, ‘Cultivating Your Influence in the Boardroom.’ No worries - we’ll get caught up now with more wisdom gleaned from my interview with business presentation master expert, Lauren Sergy, owner of Up Front Communication.

As we discussed last week, having influence in the boardroom gives you the ability to change hearts, minds, and behavior. We learned that using influence effectively is about leveraging trust – whether you built that trust over your time on the board, or you protected the trust that your reputation had already earned for you even before you joined the board.

Feedback from last week’s blog about my interview with Lauren has been very positive. It seems many of you found it helpful. Thanks to all for the emails and LinkedIn comments. I’m grateful to Lauren for the expertise she shared with our DirectorPrep community. Her responses have been edited for length.

As we explore the questions that emerged from our last discussion, let’s remind ourselves of what we know to be true:

  1. You don’t need power if you can influence those who have it.
  2. Influence is an external communication act. It’s more about how you say it than what you say.
  3. Influence is cultivated. It’s the cultivation of trust. There’s a period of time when people decide whether you’ll keep their trust.

 

When Trust is Damaged

The trust equity built up by a director can be washed out in an instant. Not declaring a conflict-of-interest and being called out for it by the board is just one example of a situation where that can happen.

Scott: What happens when a director’s trust is damaged, and their ability to persuade others has gone out the window along with it? Can they build it back?

Lauren: It will take time, but trust can be rebuilt. And very often, through that act, your influence gets built back as well.

Your ability to build back trust depends on why it was lost in the first place, as well as the degree to which it was lost. If it’s because you inadvertently dropped the ball, that’s very different from losing trust because you tried to manipulate someone or behaved unethically.

If people feel you acted ethically but you just slipped up, that can be forgiven and forgotten quite readily. But if people lose trust in you because they think they’ve seen a character flaw, it will take a long time and a lot of small steps to demonstrate - over and over - that you’re reliable and you can be taken at your word.

In the case of a board of directors, you need to be seen as acting in the interests of the group. If you’re not, that’s usually when trust is lost. And you’ll really have to work to build it back by demonstrating that you aren’t working to advance your own interests, that you have the group’s best interests in mind.

And when you’re trying to rebuild trust, you need to go much further in your actions than you would have to just maintain it in the first place. So, you have to put the group’s interests even further ahead of your own. You may even have to act deliberately against your own interests to demonstrate, “I’m here for this and I will put your interests first.”

Scott: And what about a conflict-of-interest situation?

Lauren: Those kind of trust angles are extremely difficult to rebuild. If a conflict-of-interest has occurred and something has come of it or it just wasn’t treated honestly, replacing the director altogether is often the right move, because the situation can cause such a fracture within the board - and with the management team as well.

 

Cultivating Influence for Women and Men

Scott: How would your advice about cultivating influence skills in the boardroom be different for women and men? Or would it be the same?

Lauren: When it comes to influence with executive presence, I tend to believe the principles are the same for men and women. But good posture, good eye contact, strong manners of speaking - they matter more for women. Same principles, they just matter that much more.

For whatever reason, women are held to a higher standard than men, so we can’t “get away” with quite as much. Women have to be impeccable in our behavior, because if we don’t come off strongly enough, then we’re considered pushovers, and if we come off too strongly, then we’re the ‘B’ word.

That’s simply where it’s at. So, women have to understand how to toe the line, how to show interest in other people and curiosity about their concerns, while still putting their own voice forward. That’s the dance we have to play with a little more sensitivity than men.

I really recommend women watch themselves on certain signals, like maintaining eye contact. Lack of eye contact is seen as avoidance behavior, but you don’t want to be overly aggressive with eye contact either. There are times when you need to show teeth and times when you need to pull back.

And women in particular need to watch out for that ‘up speak’ issue we talked about earlier, because we’re criticized more harshly for it than men are. Avoiding ‘up speak’ helps convey confidence and certainty.

We also tend to have more of an issue with people steamrolling our opinions or taking credit for our ideas. I’ve personally experienced that plenty of times. At times, we have to learn how to take up more space, be more forward in staking out territory, and expressing our ideas and opinions. A lot of that comes across with a strong executive presence and nonverbal signals.

 

Those are the sort of issues that women need to deal with a little more than men do.

Scott: Do you think that will change over time as more women are in senior management or have significant positions on boards?

Lauren: I think the bar will even out eventually. I do believe that we’re starting to see it already. For instance, there isn’t quite as much emphasis on what women wear as there used to be. That’s become a little more easygoing over the years.

There’s more acceptance of a woman coming into a position of power without having to go in like a bulldozer. There’s more interest now in a less aggressive style of leadership. That benefits both men and women, because there are plenty of men who don’t want that super aggressive style of communication either. We’re seeing the aggressiveness settle down. The change will be slow, but I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.

 

Cultivating Influence Virtually

Earlier in my discussion with Lauren, we talked about ‘executive presence’. How we show up physically and vocally is all part of the in-person communication package that gives people an impression of us. A strong executive presence goes a long way to building trust, to cultivating respect, to getting others to perceive you the way you want to be perceived.

FYI – Lauren’s book ‘Unmute’ has a great discussion on how the soft power we’re used to generating in person became uncomfortable for many of her clients during the transition to virtual meetings. Many found it difficult to exert the same kind of presence on camera. The meetings had to go on but they just didn’t know how to conduct themselves. They felt the loss of nonverbal communication very strongly.

I can relate. Can you?

As you may have discovered over the course of the pandemic, you can use the camera to enhance your presence by making “virtual eye contact” so that, for the person on the other side, it feels like you’re looking at them instead of at your screen. You do this by making a conscious effort to move your eyes to the camera lens – even if the image of the person you’re “looking at” is in another part of the screen.

Scott: How does influence change in a virtual or online setting?

Lauren: Remember that, when we’re in a virtual setting, we need to direct all of our nonverbal communication - all of those little cues - at the camera. So, when we’re speaking, we’re not necessarily doing so in a way that’s comfortable for us as the speaker. What we’re trying to do is give the person watching us on screen the feeling that it’s natural.

It’s not normal for me to be looking at a camera instead of your lovely face, but it creates a feeling of connection. It’s not natural for me to be gesturing above the camera frame – above the chest line – so people can see my hands within the frame. But that’s part of what enables people to look at us in the same way as if we were across the table.

So, instead of engaging in these behaviors without thinking - as we would in person – we have to do so as part of a conscious communication process. All of it needs to be amplified.

And that takes awareness. You don’t have to become a virtuoso actor. You don’t even have to particularly like being on camera. But you do have to be aware that you’re communicating through a medium, through a camera, rather than directly to another person.

Scott: Do you approach choosing your battles differently in a virtual setting?

Lauren: I really like to be sure where I intend to monopolize the conversation in an area. If there are fifteen different items on the agenda, pick one or two that you really care about and focus your attention there so you can prepare your contribution. You have to decide what matters to you, then claim your speaking time on that topic and let others have their time on other topics.

In virtual settings, people are really sensitive to someone monopolizing the conversation. Part of it’s due to the fact that we can’t signal whose turn it is to speak in the nonverbal way we’d use in person. So, the flow of conversation is more tiring, more difficult. That’s why I recommend having a facilitator to guide the conversation.

Lauren’s Tips:

  • There’s a lot you can do with your setup and your space to make things feel more comfortable and natural for you.
  • Consider getting an external webcam rather than relying on the built-in camera in your laptop. You can move an external camera around and even place it on a small tripod. You can place it in the centre of your screen so you can look into the camera and make eye contact with all the other faces in your meeting – at the same time!
  • Avoid having too many open tabs or multiple screens that aren’t related to your meeting. Having the potential to multi-task will make you want to multi-task. That’s going to stress you out when you want to be calm, collected, and in the moment.
  • Be choosy about when you’re going to eat up people’s airtime.
  • Cue yourself to look at the camera.
  • Speak slowly and clearly to overcome technical distortions.
  • Focus your energy on the topics that really matter to you. During the rest of it, breathe, listen, and look at people’s faces.

 

Between-Meeting Ethics

Scott: Let’s say you’re wondering about your position on a topic. What are your thoughts on the appropriateness of discussing it with board members between meetings? Is that an ethical influence technique?

Lauren: It certainly can be. This is where you get into politicking behavior. If you have a group of people, you have group politics. That’s a fact of life. But when politicking behavior becomes deliberately influential, or deliberately manipulative, I’d say you want to tread carefully.

It really is a big grey area, so there isn’t a hard and fast rule. The key is, are you are having the side discussion so you can sort out your own thoughts, or are you having it to prime someone or to create an ally?

If other people knew that you had this pre-meeting conversation, would they be OK with it? Would you have this conversation with anyone else, or do you feel you need to hide it? If you feel that you have to hide it, or you couldn’t report what went on to the rest of the board, it’s very likely you shouldn’t be having it.

So ask yourself, “How secretive am I feeling about this?” Is it “just between us” because you know you have to speak carefully, and you’re trying to figure out how to say something? Or is it “just between us” because you’re actively working on something that’s going to manipulate or sway opinion in a way that’s disingenuous?

Lauren’s Tips:

  • Keep in mind that one of the ways we figure out our own thoughts is by talking it out with other people.
  • Talking is its own way of thinking. Often that’s how we wrestle with an idea – we bounce it around until we can extract what’s good and what we want to bring to the bigger group. We should be allowed to do that.
  • But if talking about it is with the intent of dealing with others in a disingenuous fashion, you have to watch out.

 

In Summary

The feedback that we’ve received from DirectorPrep members has identified a desire to enhance their personal influence in the boardroom. Savvy Directors seem to all agree on the value of that particular skill.

This ability to change hearts, minds and behaviors permeates all through The Savvy Director Framework that guides our work at DirectorPrep. It’s the glue between each of the Six Key Habits.

Here’s how it all flows together in a continuous improvement cycle:

 

Be sure to check the archive for additional content in support of your professional development as a board director.

 

Your takeaways:

  • Broken trust among board members can be repaired, but it takes time and intentional effort. How much time and effort depends on what happened and how severe the damage is. Sometimes it’s best to part ways when a conflict-of-interest issue can’t be resolved.
  • While women are still held to a higher standard in terms of executive presence and demeanour in the boardroom, that’s starting to level out. It seems that both men and women are leaning towards a less aggressive form of leadership and persuasion.  
  • In a virtual board meeting, cultivating influence requires a conscious effort to make eye contact with the camera. Also, pick just a few spots where you want to speak up, otherwise it won’t take long for others to become fatigued with your constant presence in the big frame.
  • Having side discussions with board members between meetings is fine if the intent is to clarify your thinking or learn how something works. Avoid disingenuous or manipulative efforts to advance your position. People will see through it, and your level of trust will take a hit.

 

Resources:

 

Thank you.

Scott

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.

 

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