The Road Ahead
Jan 02, 2022
Late in the year we asked you - our readers - to share your issues, your concerns, and your challenges as you continue along your journey to be the most effective director you can be. We rely on your feedback to help us stay on track, so we can provide what board directors like you want and need for the road ahead, in 2022 and beyond.
And boy, did we get some valuable feedback! There’s no question about it – our readers are absolutely dedicated to this work. We’ve got enough to keep us going for the next 100 blog posts! Over the course of the coming year, look for content that responds to what you told us you need most.
Let’s start by sharing some of the great feedback we received. Take a look below – I’m pretty sure you’ll see that you’re not alone – that your personal challenges and concerns align strongly with what our readers told us they’re after.
What you enjoy most
Your responses to the question, ‘What do you enjoy most about being a director?’ confirmed that, for the most part, you find your role as a board director to be a rewarding one. There are challenges, to be sure, but at the same time there’s a high level of satisfaction.
“I enjoy the significant role my colleagues and I play by contributing to the organization’s culture, strategic focus, effectiveness, and financial sustainability. It’s also rewarding to be around smart and engaged people!” – A Savvy Director reader
One of the most satisfying aspects of board work is the ability to make a difference, have an impact, and fulfill a purpose. As directors, you feel that you are a positive influence for change, and you enjoy filling a need on your board and adding value to your organization.
At DirectorPrep, we know that a great many of you serve on boards in the non-profit sector. You told us that you derive satisfaction from giving back to your community and being able to benefit others. It’s important to you to serve a common cause – to be part of a bigger purpose. You’re looking to align your personal values with those of the organization you serve.
You also clearly enjoy the sense of connection and engagement you derive from serving on a board with like-minded directors. You told us about camaraderie and the importance of the personal relationships that develop naturally over time.
Another deep source of satisfaction is the ability to shape direction, drive change, and as one reader commented, “Watch success develop.”
Many of you also told us that you enjoy the intellectual stimulation and mental challenges of board work, you appreciate being able to continue to make use of your knowledge and skills, and you value learning from your fellow board members.
It’s pretty clear that many Savvy Director readers are receiving as much value from their board work as they are adding to their boards. And that’s a good thing. It means that smart, committed, hard-working individuals like you will continue to seek out board directorships for the sake of the deep sense of satisfaction they get in return.
Your biggest challenges
The actual question we asked was, ‘If DirectorPrep could wave a magic wand and solve your biggest challenge in the boardroom, what would it be?’ Unfortunately, we don’t actually have access to a magic wand. Nevertheless, we did learn a lot about your challenges. We’ll do our best to help you address them - with Savvy Director content and suggested resources - over the coming months.
A few themes came through quite strongly. For one thing, you’re looking to elevate the conversation at the board table to a more strategic level. You’d appreciate information, tools, and techniques that will help you focus on foresight and longer-term thinking in general, and strategic planning in particular.
“Give me confidence. More specifically, I would like to see examples of questions to ask – how to frame them so that they are received in a constructive way, being mindful that the questions should come across as more strategic than operational.” – A Savvy Director reader
A number of our readers find that the ‘bright line’ between governance and management is not quite as bright as they might wish. In fact, discerning it can be rather difficult – for themselves and others around the board table. Getting clarity and alignment on the role of a board director and appreciating the value of good governance represent a continuing challenge for many of you.
Another common challenge is board dynamics – how directors behave and the interactions among them. A number of you provided specific examples that you find difficult to handle, such as a director who breaches confidentiality, or board members who don’t prepare properly or don’t speak up at meetings.
Other examples of challenges that you’re facing include director recruitment and retention, meeting diversity targets, keeping up with technology, time management, and a host of other examples that range from dealing with stakeholders to guidance for audit committees.
The skills you need
We also asked our readers, ‘What boardroom skills do you want to learn or have help with over the next year?’ Your answers confirmed that there are a lot of lifelong learners out there!
“I look for continuous learning in a variety of areas – always something to learn.” “Michelangelo, age 87 … ‘I’m still learning.’” – Savvy Director readers
Many of you mentioned ‘hard skills’ that you’d like to develop, including financial literacy, which is the skill you cited most often – specifically interpreting financial reports, zeroing in on the most significant information they contain, and knowing what questions to ask. You’re also looking to improve your skills around risk – accessing the latest thinking around practical risk assessment, Enterprise Risk Management, and the board’s role in oversight of risk.
Additional hard skills and concrete knowledge that you listed include governance, strategy, ESG, decision-making, and cyber security – to name a few.
But if you’re of the view that The Savvy Director’s focus should be on improving so-called ‘soft skills,’ you’re not alone. Here’s a small sample of what you told us you’d like to work on:
- “Knowing when there’s no added value to ongoing discussion.”
- “Working together cohesively.”
- “Talking about difficult topics.”
- “Supporting the CEO.”
- “Increasing my influence skills.”
- “Trying to exercise more patience.”
- “Making clear concise arguments.”
- “Respectfully challenging Groupthink.”
- “Asking difficult questions unemotionally.”
Your struggles as a new director
We asked you to reflect on a time when you were new to a board, asking, ‘When you first joined a board, or your most recent board, what was your # 1 struggle?’ Apparently, some of you had to think back a long way.
“First one was 40+ years ago so I can’t remember.” “Honestly I cannot recall.” “I have enjoyed being a board member for many years …” – Savvy Director readers
For those of you who were able to recall the experience, by far the most common struggle was onboarding. In many cases the onboarding was minimal, poor, or downright non-existent. Many of you struggled with understanding the industry, the operating environment, the organization, and the strategy. You had a hard time wrapping your head around the issues – there was just so much to learn and a lot of pressure to get up-to speed quickly.
It was also a struggle to understand the board’s culture. Figuring out the group norms, the interpersonal dynamics, and the personality of different board members took time.
And the concept of ‘Noses in. Fingers out.’ – or, as one reader put it, "staying out of management’s pool" – seems to have been easier to get a handle on in theory than it was in practice. Knowing how to separate operational challenges from strategic ones was quite difficult when you were new to the board table.
Did you feel like an imposter? If you did, you’re not alone. A number of readers told us that they began their governance journey struggling with imposter syndrome – a lack of confidence and fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. They had difficulty making themselves heard. And if they joined the board as a subject matter expert, it was hard to broaden their reach beyond that – they felt that they were expected to stay in their lane.
“First board, it was knowing when I could contribute, fear of the unknown. Kind mentors were my saviors.” “I struggled to find entry.” “Honestly I was recruited so quickly I felt like I was making up the numbers … Imposter syndrome at its best!” – Savvy Director readers
Your major concerns
Our final question focused on the here-and-now. We’re interested in what’s keeping you awake at night, so we asked, ‘What are you most concerned about these days in the boardroom?’
Judging from your responses, your number one concern, by a large margin, is risk. Of course, risk comes in many forms – you cited reputational risks, economic risks, regulatory risks, cyber security, supply chain, health and safety – risks of all shapes and sizes are on the minds of Savvy Director readers.
“Managing risk in a time of COVID, reconciliation, virtual meetings, and people who are tired, frustrated and disconnected. Trust eroded in our communities is creeping into our boardrooms.” – A Savvy Director reader
You’re also concerned about your board’s composition. Succession planning, revitalization, recruitment, retention, and getting the right mix of skills – these are all top of mind these days. Making this process even more demanding is the need to be mindful of diversity, equity, and inclusion, all the while not losing focus on finding directors who’ll add value to your board.
There’s also a lot of concern out there about the effect of virtual meetings on director engagement and board culture. Many of you feel that, while meeting online is efficient and productive, nevertheless something valuable has been lost. You worry that it will be hard to rebuild the sense of camaraderie and teamwork that comes with in-person meetings and casual interactions.
Finally – and there’s no surprise here – you’re worried about the long-term effects of the pandemic. What will be the impact on the organization’s stakeholders and on our society as a whole? How must the world of work – including board work - evolve and adapt to meet these challenges? Will we see a continued blurring of the boundaries between the board’s responsibilities and those of management? Is that a good thing?
If these concerns are on your mind, you’re not alone.
- There’s a huge amount of personal satisfaction to be derived from your work as a board director.
- It’s perfectly normal to feel like an imposter when you are first appointed to a board.
- When it comes to being the most effective director you can be, it pays to never stop working on improving your soft skills.
- You’re not alone. If nothing else, I hope reading this post will reassure you about just how much you have in common with other board directors.
This week, our suggested resources are all from The Savvy Director archives:
Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.
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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