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Boardroom Behavioural Types
Despite having a good collection of individual CVs, many boards struggle to form or maintain a cohesive team. Apparently ‘competent’ or ‘skilled’ directors can struggle to make an impact at the board table while more poorly skilled colleagues can dominate the boardroom dialogue (albeit often in a negative way). The reasons for this contrast are worth exploring and appear to be primarily behavioural. Once in the boardroom, directors' behaviours seem to play as big a part in their individual effectiveness and contribution to aggregate board performance as do their skills or competencies.
Predominant boardroom behavioural types
Canadian academics and governance researchers Richard Leblanc and James Gillies have described the following eight behavioural types that impact on board effectiveness and teamwork. (1)
Challengers – ask the tough questions. They challenge management and directors about issues and assumptions and are generally direct and fair. They have strong analytical skills and demonstrate a quick understanding of issues. However, they can be inclined to micro-manage. A Challenger's style can easily be interpreted as overly critical.
Change Agents – are catalysts for bringing about change. They champion alternative approaches to problems and often provide leadership towards difficult decisions. They are persuasive. They see things through, demonstrating strong intellect and the ability to deal with complexity.
Counsellors – have strong persuasive skills and use these to work through problems, often outside the boardroom. They often play a coaching role with the board or with new directors and use these skills to serve the organisation’s interests outside the boardroom.
Consensus Builders – serve as conciliators when there is tension, e.g. between individual directors or between board and management. They have good conflict resolution skills and are relaxed and generally exhibit a non-threatening personal style. They use strong communication skills to rally dissenters to a particular position.
Conformists – often do not take part in board dialogue. They are, however, generally well liked by peers. They tend to repeat what has already been stated and rarely rock the boat. Conformists typically go with the majority opinion.
Controllers – often demonstrate dissatisfaction with board positions. They typically do not accept a position when it is first presented often registering dissent but commonly not putting up an alternative position or proposition. Their contribution can be disruptive.
Critics – are inclined towards ‘destructive’ rather than ‘constructive’ criticism. They can be abrasive and confrontational. They often take a personal philosophical position that places them at odds with the rest of the directors. They can be ‘over the top’ in the assessment of a situation. Their over-assertiveness and directness can have a negative impact on the group.
Cheerleaders – bring an optimistic view to every situation. They make comments that often take the board dialogue off track. They often lack a strong strategic orientation. Cheerleaders are quick to praise management and other directors. They are good attendees at organisation functions. They have a tendency to over-exaggerate and sometimes show poor judgement.
Four of these behavioural types enhance boardroom effectiveness and four hinder it. The enhancing types are: Change Agent, Consensus Builder, Challenger and Counsellor. The remaining four types that inhibit good boardroom behaviour are: Critic, Cheerleader, Controller and Conformist.
Every board might wish to be fully comprised of directors with ‘enhancing’ characteristics. Given the available pool of directors, variability in board selection processes and the complexities of human nature, the real world seldom, however, delivers this.
We should also be wary of oversimplifying the situation. Other factors beyond individual tendencies can have an impact on director behaviour. The style and competence of the Chair is one such factor as is the dominant culture of the board. Board members think and react at different speeds. Different values, philosophies and life experiences result in different ways of looking at issues. Greater or lesser knowledge about issues under discussion can enable or inhibit effective contribution. Also, in the midst of a demanding dialogue, personal courage and self-confidence is required to engage and make a positive contribution to the process.
Similarly, a peer characterisation of a director in relation to one of these eight behavioural types does not mean that individual can be ‘labelled’ according to that Type in all situations. People who are highly competent in a supportive setting may be highly incompetent facing a different set of expectations and pressures. Despite these variables, Leblanc and Gillies’ research suggests that, in the boardroom, individual directors are likely to display a predominant behavioural tendency.
Chairman behavioural types
Leblanc and Gillies also looked closely at the predominant behaviours of board leaders. Their research threw up two predominant types of chairs, those that they called 'Conductor Chairs' and those they called 'Caretaker Chairs'
Conductor chairs have a solid understanding of group dynamics and usually possess good leadership skills in and out of the boardroom. As directors they are typically any one or more of the Enhancing Behavioural Types. They are comfortable with boardroom dissent and moderate dialogue towards consensus. They are skilled in involving directors with a wide range of Behavioural Types, knowing when to use the particular skill or attribute that each possesses. They often appear to have an innate barometer that tells them when to intervene and when to let dialogue flow. In other words, they know their board and how to work it. The term 'Conductor" comes from their skill in conducting, in combining listening, leading, directing and bringing views and opinions together in unanimous agreement. Leblanc and Gillies found that Conductor Chairs were highly effective in that role.
In contrast, Caretaker Chairs were far less effective. As directors, Caretaker Chairs are usually Controllers, Cheerleaders and Conformists, all of which arguably demonstrate a lack of real leadership ability. These director behavioural types are typically under-controlling as chairs and struggle to manage interpersonal dissent and conflict. Leblanc and Gillies found that Caretaker Chairs frequently used their power as chairs in a negative manner, often forcing decisions through and managing the board on the basis of personal relationships. Caretaker Chairs often struggle in their effort to learn to become Conductor Chairs. This, however, should not inhibit their desire to change. With the capacity to reflect on failures and successes and the support of the rest of the directors, a Caretaker Chair might, over time, make the change to become a very successful Conductor Chair.
Any board that wishes to enhance its effectiveness should aim to develop a greater collective awareness of these different behavioural types (both director and chair) and how they impact on the effectiveness of the board. Challenges exist particularly for boards that are under-populated by directors in the enhancing category. For example, how many Inhibiting Types can be tolerated before their individual and collective influence detracts from board effectiveness?
(1) Leblanc Richard, and Gillies, James. Inside the Boardroom. John Wiley and Sons. Ontario. Canada 2005
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