|Join our Mailing List|
Is It the Chair’s Job to Facilitate the Conversation or Direct the Traffic?
A board’s meeting style and practices are often very deeply ingrained and enduring. However, some common practices have long since passed their use-by date or are simply inappropriate. For example, the expectation that the chair will be at the centre of every aspect of the board’s discourse. Do we really need a chair to direct the conversational traffic like some sort of policeman on point duty?
The chair always has the job of ensuring there is order and shape to a board discussion so that important matters are properly considered. In most boardrooms, however, no good purpose is served, by the chair being actively involved in every question or exchange of information. This turns a board meeting into a form of tennis match: serve and return, serve and return with the chair on one side of the net and the rest of the board on the other. How tedious, unnecessary and unproductive. When board members wish to pick up on something someone else has said, there should be no need to preface their response with the oft-heard phase “through you Mister/Madame Chair.” This is tipping the hat to the authority of the chair but is mostly a meaningless and irrelevant piece of ritual.
This assertion is based on a very fundamental assumption: that a good board meeting is like a stimulating conversation which progressively increases the awareness and understanding (of board members and executives alike) and reveals and applies the board’s collective wisdom. This type of iterative, learning conversation requires the chair to facilitate an organic and flexible dialogue. The challenge for the chair is to draw out the best each board member has to offer and help the group to stitch this together. The outcome is then a collective consciousness that represents far more than just the sum of each individual’s thoughts.
A highly structured, parliamentary-style ‘debate’ is much more akin to a boxing match. The chair, like a referee, has the primary task of imposing order and discipline. This may be unavoidable in some governance environments (e.g. where boards are unavoidably large or highly politicised and divided) but is largely out of place in most boardroom settings. In failures of governance it is frequently the case that boards have failed to become high functioning work groups. When a board cannot apply a sufficient level of understanding and collective consciousness to organisational performance it cannot fulfil its ultimate accountability for organisational well being. It leaves a leadership vacuum that its chief executive and her management team must inevitably fill.
In creating an environment in which a learning discussion can flourish the chair has to pursue three objectives in particular.
It is not simply a question of how the chair handles the process of the board’s dialogue. In creating a positive, productive boardroom discussion environment the chair must also ensure that the right values are in place. There are three basic values which are vital in this regard. Separately and in combination these values are critical factors in determining the tone and outcome of the engagement between board members.
When the chair both endorses and models a set of positive, functional values, the board will usually follow and adopt them.
To conclude, order in the boardroom is important but it should not be the primary goal of the chair in discussion leadership. The chair should be judged by the quality of the outcome of the discussion – of the information supplied and the ideas generated, by the effective evaluation and integration of those ideas and the ownership or commitment to the outcome of the board’s deliberations.
|Join our Mailing List|
BoardWorks International is a specialist governance effectiveness consultancy dedicated to assisting governing boards to provide effective strategic leadership to their enterprises and to fulfil their fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities to their stakeholders. It is also our aim to make 'board work' a satisfying and enjoyable experience for all who serve on or provide support to, governing boards.