A board seat isn’t just the culmination of an executive’s journey, but a milestone of growth. Achieving a place on a board is an excellent point for leaders to reflect on the qualities that have brought them there, as well as the emotional skills they’ll need for the road ahead. How will they develop the wisdom needed to navigate the board? The top table is now more complex and global than ever before.
What are some of the most important characteristics that leaders in board positions need to exhibit? Which personality traits help a leader reach a board seat and succeed once they’re there?
The art of the question
Aristotle said that getting to know one’s self was the start of all wisdom. Among the most important skills for chief executives and other board members is the ability to ask questions, not just of others but of yourself. Passivity and complacency do not serve a board member well – they must be curious, willing both to challenge assumptions, be challenged and seek out ideas and information from the people around them.
Asking questions isn’t the whole story. A board-level leader must also encourage others’ opinions, even opinions that are in opposition to what they believe. This requires interest in others as well as intuition, a sense for those moments when alternative perspectives may be forming. An effective leader has the ability to coach and nurture other board members to participate in the discussion and contribute toward the most successful ends.
Just as importantly, effective board members must be self-aware enough to know when their own defense mechanisms are at work. It’s not unusual to feel annoyed when someone advances ideas or opinions in conflict with your own, but strong leaders must recognise these reactions as the anxiety of the ego. This anxiety can lead to defensive and unfruitful responses such as blame, distraction, rationalisation, interruption, projection, and derisive laughter.
As a leader, you need to be able to create an open forum, a supportive environment where others can express their perspectives – boardrooms are generally populated with extremely bright, educated, successful and experienced people – intimidating for any newcomer. On a board, you’re going to have all kinds of characters -- the brashly opinionated and also the quiet or introverted. A great chairperson will be able to encourage quieter members, who often provide the most thoughtful insights.
Speaking and listening
Some characteristics may help an individual reach a board position but impede them once they’re there.
The extreme extrovert, for example, sometimes makes a poor bet for a board member. They’ve been able to get noticed on the way up, in part because they’re often fantastic at delivering the numbers, but when they reach the top such an individual sometimes stop listening, losing the common touch. They’ve “made it” and want all the attention – their opinion is the only one that matters. Unless they have the self-awareness to recognise and balance their own tendencies, stopping to listen and encourage others, a highly extroverted leader can actually undermine a board.
Today, innovation and creativity is what differentiates organisations. If you can create more strategically focused (rather than governance-focused) boardrooms, you can hopefully create more innovation and creativity and efficacy in implementation.
These are qualities that thrive on the ability to listen, to synthesise information, to recognise one’s own biases and tendencies. A leader must be able to make the people around them feel free to offer ideas without being ridiculed, without feeling as if they’ve posed a stupid question.
At every level of an organisation, from the board on down, one must be able to cultivate a sense of worthwhile, creative effort. Think of Google and the way in which it has created an aura of utopian work, synthesising the approaches of some of the world’s leading utopian thinkers. At the very top, if you’re able to encourage good health, happiness and creativity in the team around you, you will have taken a step toward winning.
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