Pulling in the Same Direction – How to be an Effective Board

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To chart an effective strategic course for any organisation, the board needs to be a high-performing team. However, it is common for boards to spend little time articulating and developing how they want to operate as a team. This can make strong governance and strategic change much harder to achieve. Progress is slower and decisions are less effective.

 

As leadership and governance expert Jeffrey Sonnenfeld has identified, what distinguishes high-performing boards is that they are robust, effective social systems. That is, they are great teams.

 

Why team effectiveness is important for boards

The effectiveness of the board as a team is critical to how much value the board adds and can make or break organisational success particularly in difficult or uncertain times. To provide good governance, the board needs to be a strong team and its members should trust, challenge and support each other.

 

To use a simple but powerful analogy, imagine your board as a rowing team. If you are not all in sync and operating as a well-practised team, you might not be moving as quickly or efficiently as possible, you might steer off course, or you might even capsize.

 

Functioning as an effective team allows a board to:

  • Harness the diversity of experience and perspectives to form better, more robust strategies;
  • Be more innovative through the creativity that comes from effectively drawing on different skills;
  • Spread the workload more evenly, reducing director burn out (particularly an issue for volunteer boards);
  • Make better decisions by exploring a range of views and implications; and
  • Provide a more engaging and rewarding experience for individual board members, which can help with retention and recruitment of board members.

 

Signs a board is not an effective team

In his best-selling book on team dynamics, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni identified the five dysfunctions of a team.

 

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Some common signs that a board is not operating as an effective team are:

  • Dominant directors – one or two people control proceedings or dominate discussions.
  • Passive directors – miss meetings, do not read material or do not contribute actively to discussion or decision-making.
  • Lack of focus – disrupting the group process with private conversations.
  • Being too polite – avoiding constructive conflict or debate.
  • Reluctance to admit lack of understanding of an issue.
  • Inefficient meetings – fail to stick to agenda, no clear outcomes.
  • Ineffective decision-making – indecision, inability to close out issues, continually going over the same ground.
  • Factions or cliques within the board.

 

What an effective team does

From understanding the dysfunctions, we can identify traits of strong, effective teams. Effective teams:

  1. Trust one another – knowing everyone around the table is working to the same agenda and shared vision.
  2. Have constructive conflict and debate ideas – being able to critically examine an idea and review it collectively from different angles.
  3. Make clear plans and collectively buy-in to decisions – understanding the importance of arriving at a decision and group commitment to decisions once they are made.
  4. Hold themselves and one another accountable for delivering on agreed plans and commitments – this is particularly important for boards, which come together as a team periodically.
  5. Focus on achieving collective results – the whole group is pulling in the same direction, working together towards the same outcome.

How can we strengthen our board as a team?

Building a cohesive board team takes focus and effort. Directors often arrive at board meetings from their busy lives, plough through the agenda and then disperse again. Then the team changes each time new directors are appointed. However, there are many ways, big and small, to improve the strength of the board as a team.

 

Build trust – all teams need a strong foundation of trust

  • Create the space and time to get to know each other – social events or catch-ups outside of board meetings, group trips, site visits.
  • Be clear about confidentiality – which things discussed in the boardroom need to remain confidential, and why?
  • Have ‘in camera’ sessions where board members can have frank discussions.

Focus on collective results – what does the board need to achieve, what progress have we made?

  • A well planned calendar of board activity
  • Assess performance against the plan – is the board achieving what it said it would, how are individuals contributing?
  • When things go wrong, work together on a solution rather than looking to apportion blame.
  • Process observe meetings and use the last 5 minutes to constructively provide feedback on how the meeting progressed.

Set clear expectations – how do we want to work together?

  • Have clear position descriptions for directors and review performance against them.
  • Articulate the values and behaviours you expect, with a values statement or code of conduct for the board.
  • At every board meeting start by being clear about what needs to be achieved.

Make time for developing the team

  • Spend time talking about how the board operates, not just churning through the agenda of board business. This could be done during board meetings, at annual retreats or planning sessions and in 1:1 catch ups with the chair and individual directors.
  • Recognise that team dynamics take time to build. Do not expect miracles from one session or “set and forget”. Weave opportunities for team development throughout your annual board calendar.
  • Investing the time and attention in building your board as a team will pay dividends in more effective decision-making, committed board members, and a shared vision. Ultimately, a more effective board team will mean a more effective organisation.

     

    Useful references

    Lencioni, P (2002) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass
    Sonnenfeld, J (2002) What Makes Great Boards Great, Harvard Business Review

Brodie Woodland About Brodie Woodland

Brodie is an experienced public sector executive and lawyer. Non-executive director with experience on boards in
housing, community services and the arts.

Having held executive positions in the Victorian public sector, she has extensive experience providing governance advice in complex operating environments. She brings over a decade of public sector experience, in justice, transport and infrastructure portfolios.

Brodie was previously Director of Governance and Strategy at TMS Consulting and now holds a position in the Department of Economic Development as well as sitting on the board of Common Equity Housing Limited.

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