Too often we don’t get the board we need

31 Jan 2017 By Penny Whitelock

Penny Whitelock has sat in countless meetings with board members who weren’t deserving of their role. It’s time for a new attitude to board-level recruitment

The first question I ask when I look at some boards, is why are some of the people on there? I can ask that question having sat in many board meetings where some people simply don’t appear to contribute anything. I have sat in others where some of the board members are concocting what they are going to say to the CEO – and what they are going to hide from the CEO. And there have been others where, when a person speaks out, their head is bitten off by the boss, guaranteeing that those trying to hide will never open their mouths again. Coming from the publishing industry I have witnessed very male-dominated boards with the alpha male sat at the top. The alpha male wants what he wants and the followers don’t argue; how does this help any organisation?

Such problems can be traced back to selection methods. Typically, the board comprises people who have a specific title and assume the position will automatically become theirs. This is usually a well-paid and privileged group of people who just may not be the ‘best in breed’. How can we allow this to happen – where the board members often have no training to be a board member?

This is where HR can play a pivotal role. Just as for any job, the skills and behaviours of a fully contributing board member must be determined and codified. Then someone needs to take responsibility for preparing each board member to deliver what is expected of them. If the objectives are clear, and the person is trained – and then coached – on how to deliver, there can be consequences for failure to deliver. Is your board clear on what it is expected to do? Is it clear what your CEO is expected to do in a meeting – and who can hold them accountable if they don’t deliver?

There are some key traits that you must look out for when recruiting the CEO or other board members. Up near the top of the list must be authenticity; someone who is real, comfortable with themselves and their ability. Peel back the layers, and there is more beneath.

Fearlessness is also crucial; the ability to have difficult conversations, and to call a bad idea a bad idea without damaging the person who voiced it. Fearlessness is something that I have seen missing from more board members than I care to count.

I also want board members who can win hearts and minds, and not gain agreement out of fear.

Finally, they must be committed. Whoever takes the role must do what they are being asked to do, not look at emails while in meetings, read the reports before – not during – meetings, and not waste time posturing and trying to look as if they are superior in some way.

Board members should be bringing along specialist knowledge, strategic thinking, respect and trust. To get the position is a privilege – not a right.

Penny Whitelock is director of L&D at Strategi Solutions Group

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