The Board Director's Balancing Act

I’m happy to welcome back Alice Sayant as today’s guest blogger. Alice is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com.

Alice’s thoughts on balancing independent thinking and collaboration

We are fortunate at DirectorPrep to have a group of engaged fellow board directors who seem to be quite willing to act as guinea pigs and to provide feedback on our ideas.

The inspiration for today’s blog arose from just that kind of feedback. As we tested out a framework for the essential behaviors of a savvy director, one director wrote “I am curious about Collaborate with Others and Think Independently.  … Could someone get a mixed message right off the hop with the use of these words: be collaborative with your fellow directors (don’t be too independent around the table) but remain independent with your thinking (don’t collaborate too much)?”

Exactly!

The board director is called upon to balance the need to preserve independence and critical thinking on the one hand, with the need to maintain collegial relationships with fellow board members and the management team on the other hand. In other words, to be a team player without being a doormat.

That’s why today’s blog is called The Board Director’s Balancing Act.

It would be wonderful if we could find the exact sweet spot between these two behaviors and just stay balanced. Unfortunately, life’s not like that. Human beings are not like that. And, in my experience, board work is certainly not like that.

Board work is more like the little girl in the picture at the top of this blog. She appears immobile, perfectly balanced on her teeter totter. In reality, she stays upright by continually re-balancing, shifting her weight back and forth in tiny adjustments as she compensates for the movement of the teeter totter.

A director’s behavior on the board can be like the little girl’s, too independent-minded one minute, and too accommodating the next. At least that’s what my experience has been like – continuously shifting and adjusting to adapt to different situations and changing board membership. And trying not to veer too far in either direction, lest that teeter totter hit the ground.

Independent Thinking

Independence is highly valued among board directors, especially the ability to think independently without being drawn into Groupthink – where the board reaches consensus prematurely without first critically evaluating alternative viewpoints or exploring creative solutions.

“Small is the number of them that see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.” - Albert Einstein

In the ICD’s Director Education Program, we spent a lot of time discussing the classic film 12 Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. If you’re not familiar with the movie, it tells the story of a dissenting juror in a murder trial who slowly manages to convince the other jury members that the case is not as clear cut as it seemed. By the end of the movie, he has introduced reasonable doubt in the minds of the other jurors, thus changing the jury’s verdict.

The movie explores the power that one person – one independent thinker – has to create change, even when all the other group members have essentially made up their minds. The Henry Fonda character just sees things differently.

Throughout the course of the movie the dissenting juror causes the others to re-examine the evidence, ask new questions, and consider alternate explanations. In other words, he engages the other jury members in critical thinking – looking for and analyzing evidence, data and facts. Critical thinking skills are essential for a savvy director, as is the ability to recognize natural cognitive biases and compensate for them.

Of course, it works both ways. You will not be the only independent thinker in the room. Work at remaining open to new ideas and be willing to change your own opinion when presented with convincing arguments and facts.

Collaborating with Others

The problem with independent thinking, of course, is that it can get in the way of collegial relationships with management and other board members. When Groupthink sets in, there is always the temptation to go along just to get along.

This is where the balancing act comes in. How does the savvy director express their independent thoughts without causing offense?

Here, too, the Henry Fonda juror provides a model. By asking probing questions in a calm and respectful manner, he causes the others to recognize and question their own biases and re-consider their opinions.

Indeed, the very act of asking questions tends to reduce emotion, lower defensiveness and engage critical thinking. In my past career, I occasionally delivered customer service training. We taught people in front line service positions to deal with angry customers by asking three questions. Usually by the third question, the customer’s anger would have subsided and they would be ready to calmly discuss the situation.

To ensure collaboration with others, learn to watch out for your own defensiveness (a natural response) in the face of disagreement, and try to help your fellow directors to understand and focus on key issues when discussions get off track. Even if it looks like your viewpoint is going to carry the day, make sure you leave others’ dignity and self-image intact, and refrain from treating the discussion as a win/lose scenario.

There’s always an exception or two …

Staying in balance – keeping the teeter totter in the air – is the general goal here.

But there are a couple of situations where you should let the teeter totter come crashing down on the side of independent thought, even at the cost of harming relationships. The first is any issue of integrity or ethics. Do not compromise your principles in the quest for collegiality.

The second situation is one where you are absolutely convinced the board is taking the wrong course of action. If you have examined your own biases and pre-conceived notions, and you are still sure that the board is about to make the wrong move, by all means come down on the side of independent thinking.

These are situations that call for another of the six essential behaviors of a savvy director, namely, Demonstrating Courage. But that’s a blog for another day.

Thank you.

Alice

Scott’s takeaways:

I’d like to thank Alice for offering her insights about balance. Here’s what I took away from today’s blog.

  • Independent thinking is a highly valued attribute of board directors.
  • Use questions to engage critical thinking and reduce emotion in the board room.
  • Never compromise your principles, even if it means sacrificing collegiality.

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.

 

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