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Dial-up your Board's tone: How to take stock and have greater impact

Dial-up your Board's tone: How to take stock and have greater impact

Our Boards set the tone for what happens in our organisations. It's now an inescapable fact.  The damning royal commission findings, our shouting newspaper headlines, and the loud voices of activists and society are demanding that our Boards pay close attention to the tone they set with their words, actions and oversight - or the absence of them.  Call it the “social license to operate” or just “doing the right thing”, either way Boards now have the undeniable responsibility to ensure they create the environment for positive, constructive behaviour and conduct by their leaders and their people.

So what exactly does it mean to “set the tone”?  It’s about establishing a particular mood, quality, feeling, or attitude by the way we speak, write or behave.   As a Board, we do this through the: 

  • energy and inspiration we bring to the boardroom and those we interact with;
  • example we set with our own behaviours;
  • priorities we choose to focus on;
  • empathy and emotion we display when we engage with others; and
  • extent to which we are open, available and visible.

(With thanks to Jon Rennie).

It’s this collection of what Board members say and do – and what they don’t – that has significant yet predictable ripple effects on the behaviour of our CEOs, executive teams and their reports.

One Board’s experience

Recently, I’ve been working with an organisation that I really feel for. The Chair has a visibly challenging situation with one Board member, in particular.  The relatively new CEO and CFO are being pushed in multiple directions, and confidence in their capability is being called into question (unfairly in my humble opinion).  The absolute fear in their direct reports, who need to prepare materials for the Board in relation to a significant issue, is palpable.  The dysfunction, rework, political manoueverings and inertia is almost crippling, and some extremely capable and valuable people may well leave the organisation as a consequence.  Purpose is being lost, people are feeling hopeless and devalued, and performance and market share is not being tackled with the urgent, innovative and strategic solutions that are required.  

And the Board doesn’t seem to be aware of the profound waves they are creating with their tone - ultimately destructive, certainly counter-productive, and perhaps to the point of one day being publicly found to be lacking.

Tapping into your Board's tone

To support this Board, and drawing on my past experience working with Boards, CEOs and Executives globally, I've developed a simple, practical model that enables them to better see the consequences of their behaviour.  We know that change starts with greater awareness, so it makes sense to hold up a mirror to allow Board members to see the impact they are having on the quality of the input, decisions, directions, leadership and work being done.  And with this awareness, a more positive and constructive tone can be set by agreeing to make a few very specific and impactful adjustments.

So that you can also gain insight into impact of your Board, and then make the changes you need, I'd love to share the framework with you...

At its extremes, “tone” is either negative and causes fear, or it can be positive and engender confidence.  And in the Board context, three components determine tone: 

i. the behaviours of individual directors, 

ii. their collective interactions, and 

iii. the relationship between the Board and the CEO/Executive.  

What happens in these three arenas – ie, what is said and done, how it is said and done, and what is not – has a direct impact on how organisation leaders feel, what they think and what they do.  

Before looking at these individually, it’s important to highlight that tone, like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder, so only your CEO, Executive and their reports can give true insights about tone.  So to answer the following questions, put yourself in the shoes (or heels) of your CEO and Executives.  How would they respond to these three simple questions? How might their reports respond, as your tone cascades to them?   What actions might you as a Board take to reset the tone to the one you desire and require?

1. FEEL: How does interacting with your Board make your CEO, Executive and direct reports feel?  Does the experience help them feel valued, satisfied and/or respected, or the opposite?  

At the negative end, Board behaviour can often trigger feelings associated with fear and/or anger.  For example, if a leader experiences behaviour that leaves them feeling attacked or unsafe, they can feel anxious, insecure, frustrated, betrayed, helpless, hostile, disrespected or overwhelmed.  And as a result, you have someone who is unable to lead effectively, problem-solve creatively nor get the best performance out of their teams.

At the positive end of the spectrum, a very different tone is set when – even under pressure - the Board’s behaviour triggers feelings of engagement, inspiration, and being valued.  Here, your most senior leaders might describe feelings of respect, trust, value, inspiration, energy, empowerment and/or excitement. This is the zone where you will get the greatest return and highest performances over time.

What ripple effects is your Board creating on the FEEL continuum?  Stand in the shoes of your CEO, Executive and their reports for a moment.  How might they describe your Board’s tone on a scale of 1 to 5, where;

 1 = A tone that tends to have leaders feel rather more disengaged, deflated, frustrated, insecure and/or devalued.

 5 = A tone that tends to engages leaders, and has them feeling valued, respected, empowered and/or inspired.

2. THINK:  What thought-patterns or mindsets do your CEO, Executive team and their reports tend to show as a result of interacting with your Board?

At one extreme, the CEO and the Executive might find that the Board’s tone almost “forces” them to think myopically, with a viewpoint that is much more backward-looking, narrow, compliance-centric, internal and change-adverse than they would like.  As a result, the real issues may never make it to the table, blindspots increase, decisions don’t get made and opportunities to gain competitive advantage are lost.

Alternatively, the Board’s tone might encourage thinking that is much more expansive, externally-oriented, forward-looking, broadly-focused and diverse. In this scenario, problems can be quickly surfaced, innovative solutions can be co-created, valuable insights are made and challenges are more creatively overcome.  

When you reflect on the THINK continuum, what ripple effects is your Board creating?  Where might your Board’s tone sit on a scale of 1 to 5, where;

  1 = A tone that leads to thinking that is more myopic, backward-looking, narrow, internal, change-adverse, blame-oriented and more compliance-centric.

 5 = A tone that encourages expansive, externally-oriented, forward-looking and solution-centric thinking.

3. DO:  Your Board’s tone can create different levels of panic, protecting and positioning actions by the CEO, Executive team and their reports.  What does that look like in your situation?

Panic reactions are often caused when the Board’s tone is either overtly or covertly combative, aggressive and/or emotionally-charged.  The fear that is created directly increases the chances of behaviours aimed at ensuring that what is presented to the Board is positioned appropriately, and that individuals are protected.  It can lead to cover-ups, censoring, careful crafting of politically-correct statements and reports, excessive re-writing of Board papers, down- (or up-) playing certain aspects to appease certain Board members, and excessive politics that ultimately wears people down over time.  

These negative impacts are avoided by a Board tone that is collaborative, assertive, composed, open, and constructive, and where there is a good level of availability and opportunity to build the personal respect and trust needed for robust debate that leads to great decisions and outcomes.

What ripple effects might your Board be creating on the DO continuum? Where might your Board’s tone sit on a scale of 1 to 5, where;

  1 = A tone that tends to cause panic, protecting and positioning actions in the CEO, Executive and direct reports.

 5 = A tone that is composed and constructive, and enables collaboration, assertiveness and open debate, with transparency, minimal politics, rework or panic.

There is no right or wrong with your responses, there is just ‘what is’. The main thing is that over time, you shift the tone toward the "5" on each scale.  And if you find that your responses are in the middle, there’s an enormous opportunity to bring an energising, positive tone to your boardroom table and beyond.  Our Boards today cannot afford to be neutral at best.

An invitation

As you'll have realised, the results in each of the Feel, Think, Do domains are correlated by their very nature, so target one or two specific changes your Board could make to positively influence all three.  For example, working on being more proactively inclusive at the individual Director level, in Board interactions and in the relationship with the CEO and Executive will quickly and directly impact how people feel, their quality of thinking and the strategic value of their actions.

And if you’re feeling like pushing the envelope a little, here’s a 2-minute Board Tone Impact diagnostic.  You’ll receive your results straight away, and can save and share these with others to compare views.  In the survey, you can also ask me to get in touch, if you’d like to talk about the specific actions you might take to amp-up your Board’s tone in 2019.  

So I'm curious, what actions have you found work well for your Board to set the right tone? What changes would benefit the Boards you're aware of to create a more constructive tone? Love to hear your views.

Future Crafters