How can Boards model good behaviour?
In my work as a Board member, both voluntary trustee and paid Non-Executive, and as somebody who works with Boards as a coach and facilitator, the importance of practising good behaviour and being a model for the whole organisation is a constant theme. Why should it be such a challenge?
There are three things worth thinking about – what we mean by good behaviour, whether we act consistently in line with an agreed definition, and whether we talk openly about what is happening. If any one of these is unclear, erratic or fudged then we may be in trouble.
What is good behaviour?
It is good that organisational leadership and people management has focused increasingly on behaviour in recent years rather than relying on structure and role definition to guarantee that somebody will do the right thing.
For most of us in complex organisations doing a job well is about more than completing a series of tasks. Good organisations need good behaviour. After the vogue for hard-nosed leadership in the 80s, we have been increasingly influenced by a broader range of ideas which stress collaboration, mutual support and praise as having more power to motivate than competition and shouting.
But have we gone too far the other way? Are we at risk of being too polite? Does good behaviour mean not being prepared to speak up, to tell the truth when somebody might not want to hear it. The Quaker concept of ‘speaking truth to power’ is often assumed to be about the opportunity an ordinary person might have to tell a leader how it looks from their perspective, and not to be reticent because of the power held by the leader.
But how do leaders – members of a Board – speak the truth to one another? Some of the recent crises in the financial and public sectors have shown that groups of very experienced and committed people can fail to challenge one another, preferring to maintain the group rather than allow dissent, even if that dissent reveals the truth.
In a recent online discussion of the Guardian Public Leaders’ Network I spoke openly about some of the challenges of being a Board member, and it is no easy task to strike the right balance between being true to yourself whilst being part of a group.
Is it a matter of style over substance?
Good board behaviour must pay heed to the needs of the group, and Boards are charged with doing what is right for their organisation. But what if there is disagreement or dissent? How can you ensure that your voice is heard without coming across as argumentative or contrary?
In my view good boards welcome dissent, or at least try to make sure that different voices are heard, and recorded. Poor boards are upset by difference. Consensus is about working through, it is not about making people feel they can’t speak up.
It is important for Boards, and particularly for Chairs and Chief Executives to know when they are dealing with differences of opinion or differences of style. To be able to spot, and to work out through discussion and debate if a point of view is just that or if it is something important that the Board as a whole is missing. People can have pet subjects, they can ‘bang on’, but if they have found an early truth, don’t dismiss them.
None of us want to be members of Boards which are full of conflict, anger and vitriol. But we should be wary of feeling too comfortable at the Board meeting – too cosy, unchallenging, is bad behaviour, poor style. Some chairs want to feel more in control than others. When meetings happen in public it can be very scary to have input coming from leftfield, but it is unhealthy to over-orchestrate and serves nobody in the end.
Aim for conscious, open leadership
The worst Board and wider organisational cultures are shrouded in mystery and secrecy, involve cliques and factions and are riddled with half-truths and misunderstandings at best. We come to the Board as individuals, seeing things from our own points of view – this is our strength, that we bring different things and share a range of ideas and suggestions to move the organisation forward.
But we all have to reach the same level of understanding at critical points of decision-making and for this to happen it is important that we speak our concerns and share openly our positions, so that we can see, hear and feel where our agreement has come from and to what we are committed, together.
A chair needs to orchestrate this, but we must all participate. If we disagree we must say so, in the meeting and prepare to be recorded. Bad behaviour is silence during the meeting and whingeing after. We should explain ourselves clearly, and if we do not understand we should say so and why. It is not good behaviour to be party to decisions we don’t understand and then feel we can disassociate ourselves from them later.
This is the behavioural code which I try to employ.
Friendly, courteous, polite.
Listening, contributing, collaborating.
Open, honest, reflective.
True to yourself, fair to the group, committed to the best for the organisation and its purposes.
Prepared to challenge often and if necessary to dissent on record.
I will score better on some of these than others, nobody is perfect. But within a group we should be able to demonstrate the best behaviour that we need to function effectively as a Board. We are in the helicopter seat together, and we must navigate well. How can we expect good behaviour if we don’t model it – but first we have to define it, agree with our definition and then we all have to do it.