Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a really effective board director? What differentiates a ho hum director from an excellent one? Which directors add real value to the boards they serve on vs. those who just occupy a chair?
In other words, what are the most important behaviors of an effective director?
Or as we would say at DirectorPrep, “What are the Key Habits of The Savvy Director™?”
Whether delivering governance training to a board of directors, conducting an orientation session for new directors, or mentoring an aspiring director, I would frequently encounter a similar question – just worded a little differently. I’d be asked “What do I actually have to do to be a good director?”
I didn’t have a clear, concise response for them so, with the help of my DirectorPrep co-founders, I’ve been working on a framework to summarize how an effective director actually behaves.
Board directors are frequently described as savvy. From where I sit, it seems to capture in one word what a board is looking for in its directors. When I use the term, nobody looks at me in confusion. Everyone knows just what I mean.
The word itself seems to derive from the French savoir or the Spanish saber, both of which mean to know. The French word conjures up the term savoir faire which literally means knowing how to do. So, savoir faire describes “a capacity for appropriate action, especially a polished sureness in social behavior.”
The word savvy denotes someone with common sense and good judgement. Here are some of the adjectives that the word brings to mind: shrewd, knowledgeable, experienced, well-informed, perceptive, practical, and clever.
Staying up to date in the field of board governance requires being continually on the lookout for new resources from trusted sources. So, at DirectorPrep we were delighted to come across a global research study about director behaviors conducted by Russell Reynolds Associates. First published in 2016 as 'Understanding the Behaviors that Drive Board Effectiveness', then updated in 2019 as 'Going for Gold: The 2019 Global Board Culture and Director Behaviors Survey', it captures the results of a survey of corporate directors from a dozen countries. The survey found that directors around the world were surprisingly consistent in identifying important attributes that define an effective director. Here’s their top five (consistent in both surveys with a slightly different order):
Only slightly below the top five was another of my personal obsessions, 'Come prepared to meetings.'
In considering the Russell Reynolds list, we found that, for our purposes, it would benefit from some tweaks based on our own experiences and observations. For instance, maybe it’s because I do a lot of my consulting work with not-for-profits and first-time directors, but I would definitely add another attribute: 'Know and understand the board’s role and your director responsibilities.'
Before finalizing our framework, we vetted a draft with some of the experienced directors we know. As always, their feedback was invaluable. Thank you to those who contributed.
These six key habits are inspired by the Russell Reynolds research and supplemented by our own experience and observations.
DirectorPrep’s Savvy Director™ framework depicts the work of a savvy director as a continuous improvement process incorporating the six key habits. It’s a continuous improvement cycle because a savvy director never stops learning and keeps building on their strengths.
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: In your view, what additional behaviors contribute to a director’s effectiveness?