Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be

Like so many Canadians, I’m looking forward to having hockey back in my life. If all goes according to plan (fingers crossed!), the NHL will be treating fans to playoff games very shortly, as teams compete for the 2020 Stanley Cup. There’ll be empty arenas, they’ll be playing in only two cities, and the players will stay in their own ‘bubbles’ for the duration – so it will definitely be a strange kind of play-off season.

But still – it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs! (Cue the theme to Hockey Night in Canada.)

So what does hockey have to do with The Savvy Director™? Read on …


The Great One

Wayne Gretzky is known as the greatest hockey player of all time. He was not just a fabulous player, but a great ambassador for the game. He was interviewed countless times and his quotes about hockey, and about life, are all over the internet.

Business leaders have gravitated to one quote in particular. Everyone from Steve Jobs to Warren Buffett has used it. You know the one I mean …

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” – Wayne Gretzky

The quote, which originates with advice a young Gretzky got from his dad – like a board chair might mentor a new director – sums up in a few words the importance of looking towards the future at all times. Focus on the present or past – where the puck has been – and you’re sure to fall behind. Focus on the future – where the puck is going to be – to stay ahead of the curve.

One of the ways that board directors add value to the organizations they serve is by ensuring they spend time focused on the future.

 

Four Lines of Sight

A powerful way to think about your work as a director is through four lines of sight – oversight, insight, foresight and hindsight. Each line of sight involves a different thinking style that comes into play at various times, depending on the topic under discussion and the point in the business cycle.

  • Oversight. The board collectively provides oversight, which is about exercising stewardship, monitoring performance, and ensuring compliance.
  • Insight. Individual directors provide insight when they challenge the status quo, draw meaning from information, and provide advice and suggestions.
  • Foresight. Directors’ foresight is all about understanding trends, recognizing threats, and trying to position the organization for the future.
  • Hindsight. Directors use hindsight when they reflect on the past, seek to understand something that has already occurred, and help others learn from the experience.

Today, we are going to zero in on foresight, or, in hockey terms, skating to where the puck is going to be.


Making Time for Foresight

It’s a fact that most boards spend far more time focusing on the past rather than exploring the future. That’s the nature and tradition of oversight. I’ve seen estimates that boards spend 70% to 80% of their time on reviewing financial reports, operating budgets, audit reports and compliance assessments – all of which look to the past or, maybe, the present. These estimates ring true for me.

“Boards need to look further out than anyone else in the company,” commented the chairman of a leading energy company. “There are times when CEOs are the last ones to see changes coming.” - McKinsey

Most of us would agree that directors should spend a greater share of their time shaping a road map for the future. They need to be dealing with questions like How will our industry shift over the next few years?, How should our strategy adapt to meet challenges and opportunities?, and What do we need to learn about the future?

While this has always been the case, the need is even greater today as dramatic technological, economic and political trends are rapidly realigning the business environment, creating new opportunities and threats. This extra time required won’t magically appear. Boards have to deliberately carve out more time for forward-looking activities. It’s not easy, but here are a few ideas.

  1. Allocate time for future-focused activity over the course of the annual board planning calendar. Other mechanisms include placing strategy at the beginning of board meeting agendas, shifting work to committees , and holding dedicated sessions outside of regular board meetings. These moves can flip the board’s focus by establishing an intentional amount of time that directors will spend on foresight.
  2. Ensure the board is made up of directors who are eager to engage in strategic discussions. These directors excel at forming independent opinions and working closely with executives to ensure long-term goals are well developed.
  3. Look for directors with forward-looking knowledge or skills and ‘out of the box’ thinkers. The nominating committee and the board chair should try to identify what the ideal board would like three to five years from now. What kinds of skills and experience not currently in place will help fulfill the company’s strategy?
  4. Invite subject matter experts to come speak to the board and encourage directors to seek out learning opportunities. Doing so will continuously educate the board about cutting-edge external issues as well as internal advances, which are good ways to keep the board focused on new and emerging trends that could impact the company.

“It’s not always that company leaders do the wrong things, but sometimes they do the right things for too long.” – Former Cisco CEO John Chambers


What can an individual director do?

As an individual director, encourage your board to make time for foresight by trying out some of the agenda changes suggested above.

When director recruitment is on the agenda, voice your thoughts about how potential candidates fit with the board’s future needs.

And help your board focus on the future by explicitly recognizing when foresight is called for and asking questions that engage board members’ strategic thinking style. Your questions should be open-ended and non-judgmental, such as:

  • What will be most strikingly different about this organization in five years?
  • What are the future-focused drivers of organizational success on which we all agree?
  • How can we use scenarios or mini case studies to push our thinking about the future?
  • What will it take for our organization to thrive over the next decade and beyond?


Resources:

 

Your takeaways:

  • Exercising foresight is one way board directors add value to their organizations.
  • Boards should make sure they spend time focusing on the future.
  • It’s a good practice to deliberately allocate agenda time to future-focused discussions.
  • As an individual director, you can ask key questions that help engage board’s strategic thinking style.

 

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

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 prepare for your next board meeting.

 

Share Your Insight: How does your board ensure that time is allocated to considering the future instead of reviewing the past?

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