The Best Directors Focus on Teamwork
Support the board by providing feedback and sharpening your listening skills.
The topic of becoming and remaining an effective director would seem to lend itself to a degree of selfishness.
“How do you develop yourself so that you can effectively serve on a board of directors?”
“How do you keep up with developments in the field so that you can continue to be of value to your company?”
However, being a proficient director is not always about how you prepare for or conduct yourself in the boardroom. Often, it can involve how you work to elevate other directors so that the boardroom unit can better serve the company.
Michael Montelongo, independent board director for Civeo Corporation and Conduent Inc., believes a high-performing board is more than a collection of high performers. It’s a cohesive group of servant leadership practitioners who feel they’re part of something larger than themselves, and communicate, collaborate and innovate as a team to make the organization better than they found it.
“Making that team chemistry work requires continuous individual and mutual accountability,” says Montelongo, who served as a commissioned officer in the United States Army and, later, as a senior Air Force official before embarking on a corporate career. “It is so important to give feedback, because in a culture defined by mutual trust and respect, your peers expect and appreciate it.”
Sanjai Bhagat, an independent board member for ProLink Solutions and Provost Professor of Finance at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes that the same level of frankness must be brought to the board’s relationship with the CEO. He relayed an anecdote from his time serving on the board of a company thriving in the digital marketing space. When the internet began to explode in the early 2000s, the company’s CEO thought it was time to invest in the World Wide Web. Bhagat was not convinced.
“I told the CEO, ‘You know something about digital marketing. What do you know about the Internet?’” says Bhagat. “All the other board members were saying, ‘It’s time to get into the Internet.’ I said, ‘There are a lot of things we can get involved in, but what competitive advantage do we have?’”
The board decided to go forward with investing in several internet companies, but within 12 to 18 months all had gone belly-up and the directors who had supported the investments had left the board. Meanwhile, during a trip around the golf links, Bhagat discovered the benefits of providing direct, authoritative counsel to the CEO.
“The CEO said, ‘Remember the meeting we had two years ago? You’re the only guy who was saying not to make those investments,’” says Bhagat. “‘And now you’re the only one I’m still playing golf with.’”
On one of his boards, Mike Airheart, a director for HUB Corporation and an advisory board member for Quartix, has received an interesting lesson in what it takes to be an effective leader: “Shut up and listen.”
Airheart is the only white male on the board of a small, minority-owned manufacturing company. This has taught him the value of learning from other people’s perspectives and experiences.
“You have the same trust-building issues you would in any situation, regardless of race, color or gender,” says Airheart. “But I’ve had to listen more and be a bit more aware of people coming from different backgrounds. It’s been a real learning experience. I’ve grown from the situation.”
While Airheart is in the minority on his board, he is not in fact from an underrepresented community. There is no doubt board members from underrepresented communities can struggle on boards because their perspective is not fully taken into account. Montelongo believes minority board members who are struggling to adjust to their boards must maintain the confidence that drove them to be recruited for the board seat in the first place.
“Don’t ever feel like you don’t belong. You are there because your insight, expertise and judgment are critical to your team’s success,” says Montelongo. “Listen, learn, grow and serve. I think if you apply that, you’re going to make a great first impression, and you’re going to be a valuable contributor to your organization.”
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