The question posed above by my finance professor in business school may be one of the most impactful lessons of my university education. Not sure why, except maybe to suggest that his question really hit home.
The question was pretty much a side comment to the discussion that was underway at the time and I’m not sure it resonated with others in my MBA class. But it did resonate for me. I was not even into boards yet, so, it wasn’t about that. Nonetheless it’s a powerful question I’ve brought forward more than a few times over the years.
One time a few years ago I was having lunch with a fellow director and talking about a rather difficult task we were facing with a board. After much analysis and deliberation, I knew I had gotten to the root cause of what was ailing the Board/CEO relationship. My colleague asked, “Do you think they’ll invite you back?” There was that question again …
So, what was it about? Didn’t people want to hear the truth? Was that even the right question? Was my delivery confrontational without intending to be so? Over time I would come to see that I often had the right answer and was likely two or three steps ahead of the others. But what I couldn’t see is that I was too early with my message and maybe even that I was more interested in feeding my ego with the right answer.
Reflecting back, it would have been more collaborative to think about how I could do a better job of asking the right questions, questions that would bring out the collective insight of the board to discover the way forward. In other words, letting the solution be their idea.
That’s the lesson here. The savvy directors in my world seem to get that. Maybe it’s intuitive or maybe they’ve learned it through hard experience, like me. They say it’s the questions you ask – open ended or closed – and how you ask them that results in either defensiveness or enthusiasm on the receiving end.
Yes, it’s true that in times of crisis boards may need to lean in and be more directive than they might otherwise be. And sometimes it will come down to you being the one to ask the courageous question that kick starts the conversation. Independent thinking and courage are good things in a board director.
But in general, how we communicate with each other around the board table and how we ask questions of management can go a long way to determining whether someone looks forward to an interaction with you or not – even if you have the right answer. Maybe having the right question is more important than the right answer.
What kind of director would you rather be known as – open and curious, or closed and abrupt? How can you solicit more positive engagement that will lead to better discussions and better decisions? Does it matter?
If you’re new to the Savvy Director™ blog, welcome. My goal is for this to be a place for us to engage on topics like this one, topics that can help us on our respective journeys toward becoming savvy board directors ready to collaborate, contribute and influence decisions at the board table.
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.