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Is Your Board a High Value Team?

Mar 13, 2022
by Alice Sayant, ICD.D
We’ve all had experience with teams – sport teams, project teams, work teams, whatever. So, when we join a board of directors, are we joining another team? Can we apply our life experience with other kinds of teams to the work of the board?
 
“When most people think of high-performing teams, they think of sports teams, trauma center professionals, or fire department crews. They rarely think of … boards. Still, if you want an exceptional board, you need to create a high-performing board team.” - Governing As a Team. BoardSource
 
Not all boards are teams. Sometimes they operate more as a group of individual players. That can result in mixed messages, individualized priorities and performance metrics, and failure to tap the collective mind of the board.
 
Still, in many ways, a well-functioning board is a lot like a sports team — a group of talented individuals, each with unique and complementary strengths, all setting aside their personal agendas to help the organization achieve success. Getting the right people on the team is a great start. But as sports fans know, even assembling a “dream team” is no guarantee of success.
 
To help me explore the latest thinking about teams and teamwork, I got in touch with colleague and team coaching expert, Judy Murphy. In addition to being an executive coach, Judy provides board governance training, evaluation, and strategy development services through her firm, Murphy’s Executive Leadership. Through her career experiences, she brings to the topic a variety of perspectives – that of a CEO reporting to a board, a director serving on a board, and an advisor and coach to boards.
 
But what really got me thinking about Judy in connection with this particular topic is that she is a Certified Team Coach Practitioner, having successfully completed a systemic team coaching program led by Dr. Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School and author of Leadership Team Coaching.
 
“Systemic team coaching is a process by which a team coach works with a whole team, both when they are together and when they are apart, in order to help them improve both their collective performance and how they work together, and also how they develop their collective leadership to more effectively engage with all their key stakeholder groups to jointly transform the wider business.” – Dr. Peter Hawkins
 
I’m grateful to Judy for sharing her experiences and insights for this article. You can view Judy’s LinkedIn profile here.

 

What’s a Team?

Here’s a definition of team from The Discipline of Teams by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, an oft-quoted Harvard Business Review article from 1993 that still holds true today.
 
“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” – Katzenbach and Smith
 
In their article, Katzenbach and Smith went out of their way to differentiate teams from working groups. In their view, a working group is a collection of individuals who coordinate their efforts, while a team is a group of people who share a common purpose. Working groups tend to be efficient and they provide opportunities for individual growth, but because teams focus more on communication and collaboration, they lend themselves to improved productivity, more effective problem-solving, and stronger support for organizational goals.
 
“Groups do not become teams simply because that is what someone calls them.” – Katzenbach and Smith
 
The best boards are effective teams that develop direction, momentum, and commitment by sharing a common, meaningful purpose. They invest time and effort into exploring, shaping, and agreeing on a purpose that belongs to them both collectively and individually. They coalesce around a challenging aspiration and then translate it into specific goals. Purposes, goals, and commitment are a powerful engine for team performance. Simply stated, an effective team is more than the sum of its parts.
 
“The essence of a team is common commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.” – Katzenbach and Smith
 
This kind of effective team has come to be known as “high-performing.” The Forbes article 14 Characteristics of High-Performing Teams provides a lengthy list of qualities for an effective team. Here are just a few of them to consider in the context of board work:
 
  1. Healthy Conflict. The team has diversity of thought and individuals are free to dissent and debate.
  2. Engagement. Highly engaged teams give discretionary effort and routinely go above and beyond expectations.
  3. Psychological Safety. All team members feel they can speak up freely and raise important issues.
  4. Behavioral Awareness. Insight into team members’ abilities and styles allows the team to utilize individual strengths to achieve high-performing results.
  5. Personal Excellence. Holding themselves accountable for showing up in excellence every day allows the team to thrive.
  6. Respect and Trust. Team members feel they can hold each other accountable with hard candid debates and conversations to get to the best answer for the organization.
  7. Adaptability. Teams are capable of adapting to change and open to innovative future-focused ideas.
 

High Value Teams

For a board of directors, the goal of systemic team coaching is to go beyond just an “effective” team, or even a “high-performing team.” The goal is a High Value Team. Why “high value?” Because the focus is on how the team adds value. With this approach, the view of the board is from the outside looking in.
 
I asked Judy Murphy about the characteristics of a high value team. When it comes to the internal workings of the team – the team dynamics - many characteristics are the same as those listed in the Forbes article. High value team members are highly engaged, they take part in healthy conflict, and they hold themselves personally accountable. The team fosters psychological safety and makes good use of diversity of thought.
 
 In addition, a high value team holds itself jointly accountable. This concept of joint accountability is particularly applicable to a board of directors, which speaks with one voice. Think of the team as a bicycle. By itself, a single bicycle part will not get you anywhere. Only when the parts are properly assembled do you have a vehicle capable of transporting you. Even then, the bicycle isn’t going anywhere without a rider.
 

 

Are Good Team Dynamics Enough?

In the article The Key to a Better Board: Team Dynamics, Solange Charas argues that the quality of team dynamics among directors is crucial to board success. Charas makes three suggestions for boards that want to improve their team dynamics.
 
  1. Director Recruitment. When recruiting new directors, look for behavioral attributes such as active listening, understanding, and openness
  2. Board Assessment. Assess the board’s team dynamics. If it’s healthy, great! If not, there’s work to be done.
  3. Team Coaching. According to Charas, even one brief coaching session can enhance creativity, director satisfaction, and overall board performance.
 
Sure, the board can’t become a high value team without good team dynamics. Yet it’s only one of these five team disciplines that Judy Murphy explained to me.
 
Stakeholder Expectations. The board must understand who it serves and how it adds value to those stakeholders – from the stakeholders’ point of view. Tools such as 360-degree feedback and interviews are used to uncover those expectations. Through this process, the board discovers its unique purpose.
 
Team Tasks. Having found and articulated its purpose, the board defines its tasks in a concrete and specific way, striving to answer the question, “What do we want to accomplish as a board for the next year?”
 
Team Dynamics. The board focuses on its own culture, considering questions such as ‘What’s working and what isn’t?”, “What don’t we talk about?”, “Do we have the right people?”, and “How might the leader need to change?”
 
Stakeholder Relationships. The board works on understanding its own relationship with its various stakeholders, as well as how the interests of different stakeholder groups align or conflict. Once more, the focus is on the stakeholders’ point of view. The board is asked to put itself in its stakeholder’ shoes – an exercise that can lead to new and surprising insights.
 
Team Learning. High value teams engage in reflection to help them adapt and improve. They constantly ask themselves the question, “How did we do?” – debriefing after each meeting and at the end of the year.
 
As you can imagine, a board – or any team – is not going to master all those disciplines in a single brief coaching session. The process usually unfolds over a six-to-eight month period, with the ultimate goal of equipping the board with the skills needed to become – and remain – a high value team able to face future challenges in a complex world.

 

Challenges and Barriers

It’s obviously not an easy task to become a high value team. Judy Murphy shared some of the most common barriers that she has seen boards encounter during the coaching process. 
  • Thinking of a team as a group of individuals rather than a unit.
  • Engaging in either/or thinking instead of finding a balance of perspectives.
  • Not challenging others’ viewpoints, whether because of a lack of psychological safety or just Groupthink.
  • Ignoring personality preferences that affect how other people think and learn.

 

Your takeaways:

  • An effective board isn’t just as a group of individuals. It’s a team – a unit with joint accountability.
  • A high value team takes an outside-in view, meaning the board needs to not only know who its stakeholders are, but also understand their interests and expectations.
  • Each board has a unique purpose. It’s up to the team to discover and articulate just what that purpose is.
  • The board’s ability to add value depends on a culture of healthy conflict, where directors feel safe to challenge and disagree with each other .
  • Constantly asking itself the question, “How did we do?” contributes to the board’s ability to learn and adapt – a quality it needs to navigate an uncertain and complex future.

 

Resources:

 

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.
 
Thank you.
 
Alice
 
Alice Sayant is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and, along with Scott Baldwin and Dave Jaworksi, a co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
 
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