People risks: How Boards can avoid reputation-wrecking headlines
As I opened and leafed through the papers last week, I was struck by the sheer number of reputation-damaging stories that referenced culture, conduct and the condonation of unacceptable behaviour. Let’s just take the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday last week, for example. In that one day, headlines screamed, “There was a culture of bullying in that room”, “Left faction pushes ALP to fix culture”, “Cricket bosses must go to change culture of the game”, “Bullying of healthcare staff not on” and my personal favourite, Peter Fitzimons’ edgy “Stand down, Mr Peever, this is your fluster-cluck.” He kindly explains that this is “What a bunch of harried and hassled chooks sometimes do, when they get in one corner of the yard and go off at each other.”
How is it that we’ve arrived here? It’s clearly endemic, pan-industry and reputation-wrecking, and all happening at a time when what’s needed is exactly the opposite to rebuild trust, confidence and inspiration in our institutions and for society. What is it that we are missing?
I believe there are five things that, if we could just add them into the mix in greater measure, we’d have a very different set of headlines in our papers. And what’s critical, is to add them into the mix from the top, at the level of the Board. Those five things are: questions, transparency, dynamics, tone, and commitment to making a behavioural difference.
So what do I mean by these? By better questions I mean the ability for the Board to have a structured way to engage the CEO and executive team about behaviours common in the organisation. What might happen if Directors started asking for insights about how people feel about being in the organisation, about the organisation’s commitment to doing the right thing, how else trust could be built internally and externally and how respect and care could be nurtured – all in the name of reputation, customer-engagement and ultimately, longer-term performance?
With greater transparency into people’s experience of working in the organisation, the Board would begin to have their blinkers removed about what is actually going on beneath the surface. Too often our CEOs and executive teams are encouraged to focus on the short-term, on this year’s performance and see people as just another “input”. By holding up an objective mirror to purpose, meaning and impact, to how connected people feel internally, along with how well-equipped they feel they are to perform and do the “best work of their lives”, the Board can gain confidence that the culture is on track to enable a strong future.
Board dynamics is a particularly interesting addition for me. It’s about how diverse the views are around the boardroom table, how included Board members feel, how freely they feel able to speak up and how vigorous yet respectful debate and constructive resolution and decision-making is around that table. It’s all about the environment set by the Chair. Without this, a Board can be rail-roaded by a vocal minority, members can feel left-out or unheard, and their differing views and perspectives untapped. Too often I’ve seen factions unloading to each other post-meeting to say the things that should have been discussed in the meeting, but there just wasn’t time, opportunity or the safety to do so.
Board tone refers to the atmosphere created by the Board throughout the organisation by their actions and behaviours, what they say, what they don’t, what they pay attention to and what they remain silent on. These are the things that convey what’s important and what needs to be prioritised. If only our Boards could see the implications of what they actually do, say and convey, they might be seriously surprised by the tone that they are inadvertently setting internally and externally.
And finally, commitment to making a behavioural difference. This addition to the mix is about the Board’s ability and willingness to invest in – and do - the work that’s needed to shift the behaviours in the organisation, and reinforce those that are desired. It’s a commitment to working with the CEO and the People and Culture Leader to actively sponsor, oversee and/or steer the programs that will bring about the behavioural changes that are needed.
If we could more creatively find ways to have more and more of our Board members take on the challenge of adding these elements into the mix, I think we’d find that those soul-destroying headlines in our newspapers would be replaced by ones that celebrate the organisations who are future-proofing their workforces, not only for their own benefit, but also for the greater good.
To continue this conversation of ours, and explore how your Board might incorporate more of these five practices into your "business as usual", feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.