Speaking to an audience of key European and Asian business leaders, in Lisbon, Portugal, recently, Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas, warned them not to assume that directors and boards are competent, effective or that they are going to add value to the business.
Coulson-Thomas, who is the author of many books including “Winning Companies: Winning People and Developing Directors” and “A Handbook For Building An Effective Boardroom Team”, said useful board members recognise that their duty is not to themselves but to the value they are bringing to the business.
“But too many are afraid”, he added, “of looking foolish and end up being ‘nodding donkeys'”. Drawing on his experience of the financial sector as an example, he added: “The boards of banks had the A-teams of the City establishment. But they were incapable of asking any questions. These people just went with the flow.”
The essence of a good board is balance and the ability to make a decision, something a “lot of bright people are incapable of doing,” said Coulson-Thomas.
Anyone who aspires to a Board level position, should be capable of achieving it. However, in order to do so, Coulson-Thomas stressed the essential need to build a relationship with the chairman and company secretary.
Those who succeed are able to cut through the distractions and focus the board on the impact of its decisions on the customer and on differentiating the company.
Dr Graham Wilson, an independent confidant to people of power, and author of eight leadership development and corporate strategy studies, was acting as rapporteur at the Conference, which was organised by the World Council for Corporate Governance. In his summing up, he commented: “Everything at this level depends on relationships. There will be individuals who become key influencers and there will be those who do not. On any executive board there will be a few people (usually one or two) who actually exert their influence; the majority maintain clear functional boundaries and, other than offering an opinion when asked, keep their heads down. There is nothing stopping any of them raising their head but they consciously or unconsciously choose not to do so.
“However, while basic performance has something to do with this too it is still only a small part. If a director chooses to, and succeeds, in building a strong relationship with their Chairman, Chief Executive, Senior Partner or whatever, then they CAN hold a significant position of power.
Wilson, who also works with senior executives looking for their next job, added; “In my experience, the keys are in likeability and trustworthiness. This has little to do with qualifications or even experience. Some people present themselves in ways that are likeable – they do far better in all walks of life than those who do not. Likeability IS something that can be learned, though it takes a lot of practice and so tends to be demonstrated by people who have been liked ever since they were young children.
“Even if they are likeable, a smaller number still will prove themselves trustworthy. Whether it is a minor indiscretion, a mild lack of judgment, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, not having a key bit of information at a time when it was needed, losing one’s cool even under extreme provocation, and so on. Any one of these can undermine the trust that the person needs to be a confidant to the most senior executive.”