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In speaking with shareholder-managers about creating a board of directors, at some point the most critical question of all raises its head. “At the end of the day, will you actually listen to them?”
Having a board of directors is a great driver of profitability and performance as we have traversed in previous articles. However, if you are not prepared to listen to them you will not receive the value from having them there.
LISTENING AT CRITICAL MOMENTS
It can be very easy to respond to this challenging question by saying, “Of course I would listen to them.” In practice, it can be a much harder reality.
More specifically, it can be one thing listening to your board when you like what they have to say, and another thing entirely when you disagree or do not like what you are having to hear. When your board is challenging you, making you feel uncomfortable or suggesting you are going down the wrong path, this is the time to sit up and take notice.
Being the shareholder-manager and the entrepreneur means having to take a step back and take account of what others are saying. It can be an interesting change.
I am sure that on your entrepreneurial journey you, as have I, have occupied that comfort zone of “what I say goes.” In the boardroom though, the last thing you want your non-executive directors to do is to turn-off because of the way you respond.
DO NOT AVOID THE TOUGH DISCUSSIONS
As a non-executive director, I am not one who avoids the tough discussions. In a board meeting I once chaired, the board felt that whatever we asked or said about a particular issue we were told we did not know the context or management explained how much work had already been done.
It was as though the entrepreneur had decided what was happening and did not want the board to get in the way. The project in question was at an early stage and while it was a good idea it was going to require guidance and critique to support its success.
The discussion got to the point where I turned to the shareholder-manager and asked, “What questions are we actually allowed to ask?” It was in a slightly heated tone, I will admit.
There were a few moments of silence while the room took stock. The point was made and management relaxed a bit. We then worked through the issues as a team. The entrepreneur still refers to that discussion and the fact that if he is not prepared to hear the board, then what is the point of having a board.
IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO
If you are not getting this sort of level of challenge and debate, it may not only be your fault as the entrepreneur. It may not be because you have shut down conversations or stopped lines of questioning you have not liked.
It could be because you do not have directors who are naturally challenging enough. If you have a board of directors, including independent non-executive directors, my question for you is, “When was your last tough discussion?”
If this is a difficult question to answer then you should ask yourself, “Has my board turned off the tough discussions because of how I respond?” or “Do I need to find non-executives who are really willing and able to challenge me?”
Building a high-performance board is a journey, not a destination. It is critical that you have the right people around the table to tango with you.