Sometimes I hear from board directors who are struggling to find their voice in the boardroom. They don’t feel comfortable speaking up, or they can’t seem to make themselves heard.
It can be a particular challenge for newcomers to the board, or for those who feel outnumbered by virtue of their gender, age, race, etc.
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in the boardroom, you’ll end up feeling less engaged – maybe frustrated and resentful. Not only is that hard on you, but that kind of situation results in a high level of turnover at the board.
Even more importantly, when you don’t speak up, your board doesn’t get the benefit of hearing from you. What’s the point of recruiting qualified board members, if the board is never able to draw on the expertise of all those highly capable people?
If this describes you, what can you do to find your voice?
And if you’re not in that situation yourself, stay tuned for our next Savvy Director blog for advice on how to encourage others to find their voice.
Let’s say you’re relatively new to your board. You shouldn’t assume that just because you’re surrounded by more experienced directors, your input isn’t needed or expected. Your board needs to hear from you. You have value to add to the board from day one.
You have a purpose in being there. Know your ‘why’. Be clear in your own mind about what that purpose is. Keeping it in mind will motivate you and help you overcome your reluctance to speak up.
Here are some ways to help you find your voice.
Participate actively in the onboarding process. It will help you become familiar with the company, the industry, and its governance practices, as well as the people you’ll be working with. Read industry reports, minutes of past board meetings and other board documents, and any applicable legal or regulatory requirements. Before attending your first board meeting, get a clear view of what the expectations are, what the board mandate is, and what committees you’ll be serving on.
Understand the unwritten rules. You’ll benefit greatly from finding an honest source of information on the unwritten rules – especially if you’re on a board that is set in its ways. Some boards assign mentors, but you don’t need a formal program - it can just be someone who helps you understand the boardroom culture, know whether it’s acceptable to challenge your fellow directors, and get a feel for what topics to avoid. Maybe ask someone to go for coffee.
Build rapport. If you lack relationships with veteran directors – which is likely the case when you’re new to the board – you can be marginalized by being left out of the side conversations that are an inevitable feature of boardroom life. (Read the HBR article ‘Back Channels in the Boardroom’ for more on this topic.) Then, when you raise an issue at a meeting that other directors have already discussed, your comments may be treated as a nuisance or even an attack.
That’s why it’s important to develop rapport with your fellow directors. A focus on relationships and trust building will help you establish credibility with all your board colleagues. Knowing them better and understanding how they see the role of the board will help you find your footing.
One-on-one conversations is a way to get to know them and help them get to know you. Another way of building rapport is to be at the “pre and post meetings” – the discussions that happen before the call to order and after the adjournment. It may seem like good time management to arrive and leave exactly on time, but if you’re in the boardroom – physical or virtual - before meetings and hanging around afterward, you can take part in conversations that may end up being important.
Take advantage of the power of being new. As a newcomer, you actually have an opportunity to shake things up by leveraging your unique position. Unlike veteran board members, you can ask “dumb” questions or say things like, “I’m new here. It would really help me to understand what we’re trying to achieve by … ” Having to explain things to a new director can be a way for board members to find common ground, ensuring they’re on the same page on what matters to the company, what decisions they’re faced with, and what goals they’re aiming for.
Be curious. One of the easiest ways to begin to find your voice is to ask questions. After all, everyone expects the new director to ask questions. Vocalizing your curiosity will cause you less anxiety at the beginning of your tenure than trying to articulate an opinion or defend your viewpoint. And asking questions will make you feel more like an active participant - more engaged in the work of the board. It’s a way to gradually become more comfortable in your role, so you can ease into the more daunting tasks of expressing an opinion, providing feedback, or arguing for a point of view. You’re on your way to finding your voice.
Say something at the beginning and the end. People are more likely to remember what’s said at the beginning and the end of a meeting. By speaking at the start and the end, you’ll be remembered for contributing and you’ll be building up your value in the minds of others.
“Recently, I read about the power of three—one woman in the boardroom is a beginning, two is a presence, and three is a voice.” – Deborah Rosati, Women Get on Board
When you’re the only woman on the board, or the only person of colour, or the only young person, it can be a challenge to make yourself heard. On the one hand, you’re expected to “represent” a particular group, but on the other hand what you have to say can easily be drowned out or simply ignored.
Every expert in this area agrees on one specific piece of advice, and that comes down to one word - prepare.
Prepare to be spontaneous. Good preparation is important to get up to speed with the matters at hand, but it also helps you feel more confident. With confidence, you’ll be more liable to speak up and have your voice heard.
It goes without saying that before the board meeting, you should know the content and subject matter inside out. Read through all the material, formulate your thoughts, and prepare your questions. If you come to the meeting with a sense of what it’s all about and how it will likely unfold, you’ll find it easier to speak up and participate fully.
Maybe you’d feel more comfortable making a formal presentation rather than having to insert yourself into a conversation. But that’s not going to happen in a board meeting. One way you can try coping with this fact is to “prepare to speak spontaneously.” Write down the things you want to talk about in the words you’d like to use. When it comes time for you to speak, you won’t remember the exact words, but you’ll still feel more comfortable than having to speak off the cuff.
Showing up with solid talking points gives you a boost of confidence. It has the added advantage of making it more likely you’ll be really listened to when you do speak up. Be logical and rational and, whenever you can, add evidence and hard facts to your opinions – it’s hard for people to ignore facts.
Think. Breathe. Speak. Power comes from the breath, so pause to breathe before you begin speaking. Pausing again at the end of a key sentence allows people to process the point you’ve made.
Use your words wisely. Your choice of words and phrases can enhance or weaken what you have to say. Use active words and authoritative statements, take ownership of your opinions, and build on others’ ideas instead of just agreeing with them. For example, when you’re ready to give advice or make recommendations, use language like “I strongly suggest …” instead of “How about … ?”, “My strong advice is …” instead of “I think maybe …”, and “I recommend …” instead of “Well, what if … ?”
Stop apologizing. When you have a point to make, you’ll undermine the value by saying "I'm sorry, but...". It diminishes your point and projects less confidence. And beginning a sentence with "I just..." is simply a more subtle way of apologizing. Own your knowledge.
Keep your voice clear and articulate. Try to maintain a coherent pitch, keep emotion out of your voice, and sound positive and assertive. Don’t wear fear, stress, and anxiety on your sleeve, and avoid speaking in a monotone. Even if you’re not feeling confident, fake it till you make it. Eventually, it will get easier.
Take up space. Think about your body language and how you show up. Make yourself visible. Sit upright and lean in. Those who physically lean forward into the table are seen as more active participants, while those in a more passive, distanced position are thought of as willing to take a back seat. Use the table space you need, sit with your arms apart, and use gestures to own your space.
Use silence. Women, minorities, and young people all find that they are frequently interrupted, or that others talk while they’re speaking. This can test your patience and make you feel that you’re not taken seriously. You can ask people to hold their thoughts until you’re finished or ask them to stop talking and pay attention. But let’s face it – that’s hard to do, especially for someone who has struggled to find their voice in the first place. Silence is a better strategy - it can speak louder than words. Stay silent, maintain a poker face, and make eye contact until you regain attention.
If you find it easy to find your voice in the boardroom, how about helping those who don’t? Stay tuned for the next Savvy Director blog for advice on how to encourage others to speak up.
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 directors prepare for their board role.
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