Like so many things, the way company boards operate was impacted by the pandemic. Previously, extensive debate, hierarchy and heavy governance might have been par for the course. However, the pandemic forced boards to work in new ways—or face possible ruin. In many ways, this was positive, as Covid acted as a leveller with directors and executives forced to establish new ways of working together, discarding layers of bureaucracy and enabling agile decision-making.
However, moving into the new world of work, boards must strike a clever balance. We must not let old hierarchies or inefficiency to creep in and it is essential that boards move forward, embracing new ways of working and learning from the pandemic experience. Around our board tables we must engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas maintaining strong relationships between board directors and operational senior leaders and focus on fostering an environment of support, inspiration and care, as top talent is in fierce demand.
Whilst appropriate governance remains a core function of the board, without addressing the opportunities of this new world of work intentionally, there is a danger that board meetings remain a carefully architected show—where board directors fall back into patterns of lazy scrutiny, senior leaders seek only to have their proposals rubber-stamped, strategy is a desk-based exercise for a select few and performance measurement is predictable. This is disempowering for everyone involved and puts the organisation at risk when the competitive environment is as challenging as it has ever been.
There is an opportunity for boards to use this post-pandemic period to reflect and reinvent themselves and their working practices to ensure they are serving our organisations in the best possible way.
I am fortunate to sit on the Insights board, working closely with our founders, shareholders and fellow leaders to help realise our vision and purpose. As such, we are particularly mindful of retaining our learning from the past two years and ensuring we apply it to strike this fine balance as we move out of crisis mode and into the new world of work.
Four elements for board effectiveness
There are four essential elements, underpinned by self-awareness, that must be in place, and working effectively, for boards to thrive as we move into the “new normal”. These principals are based around our team effectiveness model and have particular resonance given the balance boards need to strike.
Boards made up of people with high levels of self-awareness, who understand their unique personality preferences, and can understand and relate to others, help produce the best climate and enjoy higher levels of trust and engagement.
Additionally, proactively harnessing diversity in the team creates the opportunity for new ideas and different perspectives, which can unlock creativity and innovation. It is incumbent on the chair to ensure senior leadership and the organisation is appropriately governed yet strive to create a climate of encouragement, care and support. Executives and senior leaders have more choice than ever with attrition rates sky rocketing, so creating positive, empowering and inspiring board environments will be a vital element of organisational success.
All teams need to be aligned and clear on their goals and remit, with individuals sure on their role and the contribution they can make. Boards are no different. Additionally, different people respond to goals in different ways. It is important to spend time together as a board, developing an inspiring vision, a coherent strategy and with clear goals and measurement which can be easily communicated to the organisation. This is a vital component of the leadership of a company and a board with a strong, well-communicated focus is a powerful force for good.
High-performing boards will be built on strong processes, with clear methods of working. That’s because when processes are clear, everyone knows what is expected of them, is working to a similar standard and can focus firmly on the horizon. Understanding and articulating what the appropriate level of governance is for the organisation, ensuring enabling processes are in place and working with leadership to establish these together can really help ensure that there is alignment at the top of an organisation on key processes.
How a team works together—or flows—is an essential ingredient in its overall success. Boards that interactive positively and work well together are more likely to achieve common goals. Taking the time to understand each other’s personalities, skills and experiences, listen to personal experiences and points of view, empathise, and respond authentically helps to maintain flow. When a board is in flow the whole company benefits as this radiates out to the organisation and fosters a culture which attracts talent and generates great results.
What will successful board meetings look like?
For boards to be successful in the new world of work, members must retain the skills which have helped to steer many companies through the pandemic. Agility in decision making, constructive challenge and debate, expecting and encouraging an open exchange of ideas will be central as we move forward.
Investing in self-awareness can help to make board meetings more successful—because self-awareness is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Self-awareness helps you understand your strengths and any potential blind-spots; where and how you can add most value; how to challenge appropriately; and how to turn your ideas into new realities. A self-aware leader is also in turn more aware of others, more aware of how to adapt personal style to make more meaningful connections with others, create more effective ways of working and achieve better business outcomes.
Board meetings should be an opportunity for personal and organisational development—where everyone brings their unique perspective and personal contribution, and everyone goes away having learned something new and, as a result, the business flourishes.
Finally, humanity and compassion are crucial to board success, especially when the hard work of scrutiny, governance and strategic decision-making are pillars of the board agenda. Boards—as with any team—work best when relationships are invested in and nurtured. This means ensuring the brilliant human skills of resilience, creativity and collaboration are properly considered and catered for, alongside personal preference and need.
Fiona Logan is chief executive of people development company Insights.