• Author: Graeme Nahkies and Terry Kilmister
  • Published: Aug 3, 2009
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Many years ago, John Carver observed that the average governing board is ‘an incompetent group of competent people’. One explanation for this is that most of us come to the boardroom because we are good at ‘doing stuff’. Good governance, however, is an intellectual rather than a hands-on activity. The board’s governance job is essentially thinking things through in contrast to management’s (subsequent) job of getting things done.[1]

The activity of governing requires a high level of communication and engagement between members to enable the board to develop the sort of collective consciousness needed to provide coherent and cohesive leadership.

Several critical elements distinguish the most effective boards (and board members) from those that are less so.

Engaging through dialogue rather than debate

After a particularly rewarding boardroom session, board members often describe themselves as having had a good ‘debate’. Seldom, however, do effective and satisfying boardroom discussions involve debate in the strict sense of a contest between opposing and irreconcilable positions that can result only in win-lose or lose-lose outcomes.

Successful boards seem to be able to conduct (at least occasionally) a deep, honest, inclusive, and respectful dialogue that assumes members have different ways of seeing things and values those differences.

Compared to other ways of conversing, dialogue:

  • seeks deeper understanding of each member’s perspective
  • enables feelings (and a wider range of them) to be expressed
  • makes explicit otherwise unexamined assumptions, beliefs, preconceptions, and biases
  • encourages greater honesty and openness
  • bridges gaps between adversaries
  • increases the likelihood that everyone will be heard
  • avoids superficial, forced compromises to which there is no real commitment
  • generates learning, invents new options, and encourages innovation.

When these attributes are missing, agreements are less likely to last, and any plans on which those agreements are based will have less chance of being successfully implemented.

A spirit of inquiry rather than inquisition

Rather than having all the answers, in the boardroom it is far more important for directors to know what the questions are and how to ask those questions in a way that will draw forth useful and informative answers.

This is helped if a board has a questioning ‘climate’ or culture. When effective questioning is not supported, important assumptions can go unacknowledged and untested. Unfounded conclusions may be accepted, and prejudice and complacency can persist. Boards that do not inquire thoroughly of the matters coming before them are likely to have a distorted sense of reality. Chief executives unaccustomed to close questioning can easily become overconfident and, if questions do arise, respond defensively as if under attack.

Effective questioning helps directors and executives develop a broader and deeper understanding of important issues facing the board. Exploring issues and problems from different points of view assists in gaining a greater appreciation of their complexity. Questioning opens new doors to fresh thinking and new insights and ideas. A board can act more decisively and confidently when it has conducted a thorough inquiry than if it relies on a narrow range of resources, opinions, and perceptions. A questioning culture enhances directors’ feelings of inclusion in board processes and, by creating a sense of ownership in the board’s decisions, increases commitment to their implementation.

Knowing not only what questions to ask but how to ask those questions is a skill to be highly valued. Using a learning mindset means questioners can seek to understand without being accusatory. They do not signal that they already know the answers, but that they are interested and open to new possibilities.

A commitment to learning

To be effective, a board must foster collaborative partnerships between its members. This means it must evolve from a collection of individuals into a learning community with shared values and common goals.

Board members cannot be ordered to be committed to learning. Nor can they be forced to risk the experimentation and the uncertainty that goes with exploration. An environment must be created, therefore, whereby participants readily conclude that ‘my colleagues…

  • genuinely want my contributions
  • are interested in knowing me as a person and will appreciate and keep in mind my individuality when they listen to my questions and comments
  • receive my questions and comments with a positive attitude (rather than a negative bias or prejudgment)
  • really listen to what I have to say rather than just pause while I talk
  • ask for my help, work with my suggestions, and demonstrate respect for my judgment and my intentions.’

Some common characteristics within a board that constitute a true learning community:

  • Individual directors’ diverse backgrounds are blended into an association dedicated to collective as well as personal learning.
  • Within the community of the board, directors are sincerely interested in each other as individuals and for their ideas, and in the challenges facing the board.
  • The board’s dialogue is a process of exploration. When speaking, directors not only present a point of view but test and modify their ideas instead of doggedly defending personal conclusions.
  • Directors listen to each other with interest, not fear. Differences of opinion prompt further inquiries, not disputes. In fact, this inquiry process is central to learning and effective discussion. Effective directors ask good questions and plenty of them.

Effective board leadership

This analysis would not be complete without recognising the significant impact of board leadership. High-quality discussion does not occur naturally or thrive easily in many boardroom environments. Effective leadership of discussion is a particular responsibility of the board chair, yet many chairs seem to treat each board meeting as a race against the clock in which each agenda item is a hurdle to be cleared as quickly and efficiently as possible.

A chair’s particular role is to create an environment in which dialogue can flourish, rather than directing or dominating its content. In part, this involves assisting other directors, particularly when their comments depart from the consensus of the moment, or their proposals conflict with the hitherto firmly held convictions and traditions of the board.

Board chairs must make it clear that they will encourage and support an honest exploration of an idea or proposition even when other board members may find it ‘off the wall’ or even threatening. When individuals’ comments are treated seriously and built into the thread of the discussion, they are likely to feel valued. Over time, participants in open and inclusive discourse develop a sense of trust in each other, which is a vital ingredient for the development of a true learning community.

 (Previously published in Good Governance #72, 2009)


[1] Harper, John. Chairing the Board. London, Kogan Page. 2005