Board meetings are often peremptory affairs that skim the surface of deeply important issues if these are acknowledged at all. 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. Such chairs are mechanistic and narrow in their approach when effective discussion leadership requires simultaneous handling of both process and content and emotional as well as intellectual engagement.
Through our consulting work assisting boards to improve the quality of their thinking and decision making, we are conscious of the great and growing pressures on organisations arising from global economic, environmental and social trends. For many organisations the words of atom splitting scientist Sir Ernest Rutherford “We have no money therefore we must think” are particularly apt. Thinking together is (or should be) the core function of any governing board whether or not theirs is particularly a ‘money’ problem. It is rare that the quality of a board’s collective intellectual endeavour is not closely correlated to organisational achievement.
For these reasons we will traverse in the following article some of the issues involved in effective discussion leadership with a particular focus on the demands it places on the board chair.
Building a learning community
A key objective of any governing board must be the effective application of conceptual and critical thinking skills. To achieve effectiveness in these areas requires a collaborative partnership between board members. For this partnership to develop boards have to evolve from a collection of individuals into a learning community which has shared values and common goals. In the absence of agreement on the values that should guide behaviour and on the common goals to which the board’s effort should be directed, the leadership effectiveness of a board is greatly diminished. Unfortunately, this is often the case in many of our publicly elected governing bodies whose discourse is often characterised by such a battle of wills and egos that organisational mission and organisational achievement is almost irrelevant.
Consistent with the realities of a board’s collective responsibility, a collegial sharing of power, accountability and tasks must replace any implicit or explicit hierarchy in relationships among the directors. In order for individual board members to exercise independent judgement, the discussion process requires participants to become actively involved in their own learning. This entails ‘discovering for themselves’ rather than accepting at face value the verbal pronouncements of their colleagues or the written pronouncements of their staff and other advisers. Board members cannot be ordered to be committed to learning. Nor can they be forced to risk 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; and
- ask for my help, work with my suggestions, and demonstrate respect for my judgment and my intentions.”
Another factor central to any board’s learning ability is the ‘tone and tenor’ of the board and its meetings. If the tone of a board meeting is critical and acerbic - even confrontational, board members either withdraw or come out fighting. There is an expression, referred to as ‘Gresham’s Law’, which applies to the tendency for ‘bad money’ to drive ‘good money’ out of circulation.  In the boardroom context this concept applies to the situation where vocally aggressive and overly self-confident board members ‘drive out’ the contributions of more measured and reflective, or perhaps less articulate, less confident colleagues. When there are no clearly understood and accepted boundaries for appropriate behaviour, attack, not exploration, often becomes the predominant activity. When directors indulge in individual points scoring, rather than collaborating to build collective group understanding, they damage the fabric of discussion. One manifestation of this is resistance to modifying early conclusions even when contrary evidence emerges. This is a particularly dangerous situation for the quality of boardroom decision-making.
There are some common characteristics within a board that constitutes a true learning community.
- The diverse backgrounds of individual directors 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 absolutely central to learning and effective discussion. Effective directors ask good questions and plenty of them.
Roland Christensen has highlighted the importance of three basic values which we consider are absolutely vital in the boardroom. Separately and in combination these values are critical factors in determining the tone and outcome of a board’s discussion.
- Courtesy in working with one’s associates is a simple but powerful virtue. Politeness sets a cooperative tone and encourages the openness that is essential to creating a situation in which people are willing to help one another by sharing experience and insights.
- A willingness to take risks. Applying both individually and collectively, a willingness to take risks not only helps directors and management alike to understand the issues being addressed, but encourages people to think about and surface a much wider range of ideas. It encourages directors and managers to speak up, to question long accepted assumptions and shibboleths. A board needs brave, as well as adroit, directors.
- An appreciation of diversity. Diversity around the board table - in individuals’ backgrounds, personalities, thinking and learning styles, frames of inquiry and spectrums of interpretation - helps a board to avoid the rigidity of single track thinking about single point destinations.
The crucial role of the chair
A board chair who is capable of building this sort of learning community reinforces these values by his or her own behaviour. The way a chair interacts with colleagues and management both at board meetings and between meetings speaks volumes. When the chair both endorses and models a set of positive, common values the board will usually follow and adopt them.
A chair’s particular role is to create an environment in which discussion can flourish. This is in contrast to directing or taking the lead in discussion themself. 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. The chair must make it clear that he or she will encourage and support an honest exploration of an idea or proposition even when other members of the board may find it ‘off the wall’ or even threatening.
In a boardroom discussion all participants are vulnerable to some degree. New directors and staff members are particularly so. While boardroom discussions will never be perfectly safe the chair can minimise participants’ vulnerability by promoting trust and respect. This means ensuring that individuals’ comments and contributions are listened to with discipline and sensitivity and responded to constructively. When an individual’s comments are treated seriously and built into the thread of the discussion he or she is likely to feel valued. Over time, discussion participants develop a sense of trust in each other which is a vital ingredient for the development of a true learning community.
At the same time, treating board room comments with respect does not necessarily mean accepting them at face value. Directors, without even realising it, sometimes float verbal hot air balloons. Unsubstantiated assertions and glib conclusions are common in many boardrooms. While others might experience the urge to bring about a rapid deflation with a sharp instrument, the chair must, instead, “… let the discussion bring these balloons gently back to earth.”
Successful discussion leaders must be skilled in the use of language. To encourage constructive responses, for example, chairs would do well to model the use of the conditional tense and to use questions. This leaves maneuvering room for all discussion participants and eschews the type of false absolutes (e.g. “It is wrong to subsidise low-cost housing”) that are common in many boardroom discussions. For example:
‘Does this approach seem right?’
‘Might this be the route to take?’
‘Should the evidence lead us to this conclusion?’
Prompting further discussion in this way also encourages the development of balanced judgment and encourages participants to disagree with each other without confrontation (‘to disagree without being disagreeable’).
The chair is required to exercise a high degree of intellectual challenge in discussion leadership. If all comments are to be viewed as potentially positive contributions to the board’s learning process, the chair’s task is to integrate this raw material to further advance the discussion. This also means linking contributions from earlier discussions to the current dialogue.
Another major process challenge occurs because, given short meetings and long agendas, chairs often feel pressed to keep the board’s dialogue moving quickly. Undue haste can produce (or allow) damaging cut-offs that are both disrespectful and prevent participants from completing their arguments. The chair has a special responsibility to ensure that directors and for that matter, executives advising the board, have the opportunity to complete the expression of their thoughts and that the group as a whole has understood their basic intent.
In an environment in which listeners are disciplined there is more likelihood of hearing the unspoken. For example, if Frank has held forth often and forcefully about the prospect of a particular proposal coming to the board but fails to speak out when the management recommendation finally arrives, a disciplined listener will hear his silence and wonder about its cause. Has he changed his views? Has he simply given up? Is he under some sort of pressure to go along with the decision? Has he accepted the inevitable but might be likely to undermine the decision later? The chair (and preferably other directors as well) need to be continuously alert to implications of what is not said.
Another important aspect of the chair’s leadership of high-quality discussion is to encourage the wider group to share in the determination of how the board will operate. When, for example, there is a process to engage all board members in setting behavioural and performance standards there is a greater likelihood these standards will be achieved or even surpassed. To the extent that such standards become codified in a board charter or similar documentation, shared understanding and collective commitment can help the board to evolve beyond formal procedures requiring compliance, to ‘covenants’ about the pursuit of common goals for mutual benefit.
The idea of shared responsibility also applies to the board’s determination of how its time is going to be spent. Too many boards delegate (abrogate) the determination of the board meeting agenda to management or simply leave it to the chair to develop in consultation with the chief executive (the process of determining an annual agenda or board work program which we have described previously is useful in this context).
To be effective discussion leaders, chairs also need to develop knowledge of their colleagues. For example, what sort of a learner is Felicity? Is she threatened or excited by the unknown and the uncertain? Is she willing to have her ideas tested rigorously, and to explore a colleague’s argument even though it contradicts a strongly held conviction of her own? Does she truly listen? Does she frame questions that catch the current ‘drift’ of the board’s discussion and extend its range? Can she see the connections, accumulating and integrating prior comments into something that adds to the board’s understanding? What does she bring in from outside the boardroom? For example, what personal, professional and work experience does she bring to the board’s deliberations? In what other worlds does she live? What current interests and commitments occupy her attention?
Finally, a spirit of partnership in the boardroom, as in many other environments, is fragile and difficult to regain once lost. It requires continual nourishment and the chair should be particularly cautious in introducing their personal judgments into the board’s dialogue. When doing so they should state such judgments in a matter that clearly invites others to differ. Dictating to the board and assertively ‘directing the traffic’, by, for example, summarising all points or lines of argument and directing what should be discussed next, might be the traditional expectation of a chair but should be avoided when the board is in discussion mode. At best it creates, passive ‘followers’ rather than active ‘partners’. At worst it encourages the ‘one man band’ syndrome. The achievement of effective discussion leadership should not come down to the chair alone. Board members collectively must share the responsibility for the progress and quality of discussion.
 In the preparation of this article, we acknowledge the stimulus of the writings of the doyen of discussion leadership, Harvard professor C. Roland Christensen. See for example, his ‘Premises and Practices of Discussion Teaching’, in C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Anne Sweet (eds.) Education for Judgment, Boston, Harvard Business School Press, 1991 (pp15-34) on which this article is particularly based.
 Christensen, op. cit., p.19.
 For further information on asking questions in the boardroom see ‘Effective Questioning in the Boardroom-Inquiry or Inquisition? Good Governance, #57 (May-June 2007)
 Christensen, op. cit., p.20.
 Christensen, op. cit., p.23.
 ‘Developing an Annual Agenda’. Good Governance, #11 (September-October 1999).