Does it sometimes feel as though you hear from the same few directors at every board meeting? What about all the others? Why do they stay silent? And more importantly, what can be done about it?
These days, many boards are consciously pursuing more diversity around the board table. The benefits include exposure to a variety of viewpoints, a range of experiences to draw on, and greater insight into stakeholders’ concerns and perspectives. But board diversity won’t deliver on its promise unless there is open discussion, where every board member’s voice is heard.
And diversity is only one of the many reasons that it’s important for all directors speak up. The knowledge, experience, and skill set that they bring to the table needs to be brought out so the board can benefit from their input.
Our last Savvy Director blog, ‘Your Voice Matters in the Boardroom,’ was addressed to those who are struggling to have their voice heard. This time let’s explore how to create an environment where everyone feels they have a voice – and is comfortable sharing it.
It’s a mistake to think that quiet directors all refrain from speaking up for the same reason. Here are just a few possible causes: psychological discomfort, lack of knowledge, personality traits, boredom, disengagement, having nothing to say, lack of opportunity. And the list goes on …
For instance, new directors often don’t have existing relationships with other board members, so they don’t feel comfortable. In that case, isn’t it the responsibility of the people already on the board to try to connect with them, make them feel comfortable, and encourage them to speak up?
Board composition plays a part in how directors with diverse experiences can feel supported – or not. Being the sole member of a minority group on the board can be isolating for that individual. Wouldn’t having two or three, instead of just one, make all the difference?
It’s not just new directors who don’t speak up. Long-serving directors who once participated actively can lose interest or become disengaged. Then one day the board chair, having no idea they wanted to move on, is surprised by their “sudden” resignation. Shouldn’t someone have made an effort to ensure they were still feeling positive about their board involvement?
And here’s another factor that keeps some directors quiet – personality traits. Taking part in board discussions can be challenging for introverts. Without encouragement, they’ll wind up keeping their thoughts to themselves. What would that encouragement look like?
Cultivating active participation starts with the board chair, but there’s a role for every director to play. Let’s explore.
Positive engagement in board meetings has to start with the board chair. It’s part of their job to draw out directors so the board can make the most of their abilities.
To make this happen, board meetings need to be facilitated in a way that fosters an inclusive culture. All directors need to know that their unique perspectives are welcomed, and that their diverse viewpoints make a valuable contribution to board decision-making.
Different board chairs take different approaches, of course, but it usually involves a combination of meeting tactics and one-on-one conversations.
Give them time to think
Some directors are adept at thinking on their feet and responding in the moment. Extroverts are comfortable thinking out loud, formulating their ideas in real time as they go.
Introverts are different. They tend to be careful thinkers who take more time to process information and formulate their ideas. Quiet directors may simply be mulling over a topic or deciding what to say. Their silence isn’t an indication of disinterest. It’s just that, by the time they feel ready, the opportunity might have slipped away. (Read the Savvy Director blog ‘Calling All Ambiverts’ for more about these personality traits.)
Helping introverts find their voice involves giving these reticent directors the chance to plan ahead. Receiving the board material well in advance is particularly important for these more thoughtful, analytical board members. It gives them a chance to think things over, research issues, and formulate what they want to say.
Another technique is to give them an assignment to report on. That way they can get practice speaking up by delivering a prepared report rather than having to speak off the cuff.
Shut down the non-stop talkers
Some board members, in good faith, have a stance on every issue and always have something to say. They’re adding value, but they’re also monopolizing the air space and leaving little opportunity for quieter directors to weigh in. Interrupting them mid-stream is not the best way to go.
A better way for the board chair to deal with a non-stop talker is one-on-one – pulling them aside and saying something like, “Everyone on the board respects you. A lot of directors have opinions, but they’ll wait to see what you think before speaking up. I wonder if you’d mind holding back for a few minutes. Let’s see if we can get the others to weigh in earlier.”
A tactful request like that preserves the talker’s dignity and actually enlists them as a partner in achieving the board chair’s goal of greater participation.
Get them talking early
It’s a fact that getting people to speak at the beginning of a meeting makes it far more likely they’ll speak up later. That’s the whole idea behind an ‘ice breaker’ - going around the table and having everyone answer a non-threatening question that everyone can relate to,
When I served on the board of Frontier College, Canada’s oldest national charitable literacy organization, the practice was to begin meetings by asking each director, “What book are you reading?” It was a great method of breaking the ice in a way that linked to the organization’s mission. Plus, it had the added benefit of building a reading list each time we met.
For new directors or introverts, a practice like this reduces some of the fear of speaking up. It also helps build a board culture that respects everyone having a turn to say something.
Read the room
To ensure that all directors are comfortable speaking up, the boardroom needs to be a safe, open, and welcoming environment. It’s important for the board chair to be able to read the room. To do so, it helps to know the board members well enough to tap into their personalities.
When there’s a discussion underway, pay attention to whether the whole group is participating. Many introverts who don’t speak up still have valuable ideas they’ll share if called upon. So, when you notice that someone hasn’t had a chance to share, do them a favor and give them the opportunity.
To draw out diverse perspectives and encourage innovative suggestions, invite everyone to contribute. If it’s quiet or some directors are hanging back, try saying something like, “Let’s go around the table and hear everyone’s thoughts.” Ask each director, “What’s your view? Do you need any more information? What are your concerns?” As well as being inclusive, this approach helps management synthesize board feedback because they’ve heard all views.
While each director speaks, make sure the others are listening attentively and respectfully - no eye rolling or discouraging gestures. And if someone’s body language suggests they disagree with what’s being said, draw them out by saying something like, “Let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute. What do you think someone might say on the other side of the issue?”
Keep them engaged
Directors who don’t speak up are likely to be less engaged than their more outspoken counterparts. Conversely, directors who aren’t engaged stay quiet. It’s a vicious circle.
Working to improve board engagement overall can result in empowering quiet directors to add to the conversation. For ideas on improving your board engagement, read these two Savvy Director blogs: ‘Getting in Gear’ and ‘Shifting into High Gear.’
Talk to them one-on-one
Spend some time getting to know directors as people, to understand where they’re coming from, what issues matter to them, what they’re good at. It’s worth spending time on this kind of simple relationship-building – to slow down and chat for a bit.
Come right out and ask them, “Do you feel comfortable and included on the board? Do you feel encouraged to provide your perspective? Do you feel heard? Do you feel you can influence board decisions?”
By treating each person as an individual, you can tailor your efforts. It might be as simple as asking, “How can I help you?”
Inclusion is everyone’s job. Every director on the board can make a difference. Each of us plays a role. We have opportunities to be inclusive or not, when we speak up but also when we don’t. We can step up and behave in a way that contributes to an inclusive board culture.
Create opportunities for others to speak up. If the board chair hasn’t already done so, any director can simply say, “Before I vote on this, I would find it helpful if we went around the table and heard everyone’s perspective,” or “I’m keen to hear so-and-so’s thoughts.” If someone has articulated their ideas to you privately, but you know they’re uncomfortable speaking up, you may be tempted just to paraphrase what they said - giving them credit for it, of course. But there’s a fine line between empowering someone and overshadowing them. Rather than speaking on their behalf, a better approach is to ask them to share their thoughts.
Acknowledge everyone’s contributions. Take the time to acknowledge the contributions a usually quiet member makes. Speak up if you observe another director’s voice being ignored. For instance, when you hear Director X offer a perspective which Director Y simply reiterates in different words, don’t just acknowledge Director Y. Instead, say something like, “I agree with the approach that X identified and Y echoed.”
Actively Listen. Listening carefully while one of the more reserved directors is speaking is a form of empathy - and a powerful tool for building an inclusive culture. Let them know they’re being heard. When someone feels truly heard, they’re empowered to speak up. Read the Savvy Director blog ‘Listening Skills for Influence in the Boardroom’ for more on this topic.
Let’s not monopolize the floor. If you are one of the directors who tend to take control of conversations in an assertive way, you may be inadvertently silencing your more laid back or introverted board members. Try to resist dominating the conversation or feeling like you need to fill in every gap in the discussion.
It’s everyone’s job to help create the conditions where all directors feel comfortable sharing their views and making their contribution. While the board chair is ultimately accountable for facilitating meetings and drawing out directors, each director has an important role to play. Together, we can create a healthy culture of inclusion.
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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