The group dynamics that define well-functioning boards

By Vincent H. Domine

Group of colleagues in the sun

From the outside, it’s not so difficult to distinguish well-functioning corporate boards from problem-plagued ones. Healthy, successful boards are those that make wise decisions, within a reasonable timeframe, that carry weight with management. But deconstructing board success into a checklist or recipe is not so obvious. Composition—achieving the right mix of backgrounds and competencies—is essential but not sufficient. There’s an intangible aspect too, one that can’t be captured by merely curating the right CVs.

At bottom, boards are like any other group of people. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion observed that all groups coalesce for a specific purpose. For boards, the purpose consists of roles and responsibilities such as advising management, taking charge in times of crisis, protecting organisational assets, handling CEO succession, etc.

A positive board dynamic lends itself not only to group cohesion, but also to optimal fulfilment of core roles and responsibilities

How effectively groups fulfil their purpose is partly determined by their collective dynamic, or how individual personalities mesh or clash with one another in the course of getting work done. The ability to align, if not agree, on a fundamental purpose characterises effective boards.

Those with a counterproductive dynamic will often get bogged down in interpersonal or political conflict. A different kind of troubled dynamic can give rise to groupthink-ruled boards that manufacture consensus to shield against anxiety-provoking truths.

A positive board dynamic, therefore, lends itself not only to group cohesion, but also to optimal fulfilment of core roles and responsibilities for the good of the firm.

Two strong headwinds impede interventions to improve group dynamics on the board. First, directors generally possess—or at least project—a sense of self-assurance bolstered by prolonged professional success. In the pressured environment of a board meeting, they eschew displays of vulnerability and expect a certain degree of deference from those around them. These psychological defences are incompatible with honest discussions of emotional dynamics.

Second, the infrequency of board meetings can place a low ceiling on trust and familiarity between directors. Unlike team members who are in daily contact, board directors don’t have the luxury of time to adjust to one another’s particularities and preferred working styles.

Awareness of group dynamics

Addressing group dynamics on the board, then, requires deliberate cultivation of what French and Simpson call “evenly suspended attention”—an all-encompassing awareness of what is happening underneath the surface of a board meeting. This form of attention allows one to “read the [board]room”, uncovering the emotional content of unspoken cues.

Four categories of cues are most useful. Non-verbal communication (body language, facial expression, etc.) is often a more reliable indicator of emotion than the spoken word, especially in group settings that are fraught with self-consciousness such as board meetings. Informal roles—cheerleader, devil’s advocate, etc.—an strongly affect group dynamics when individuals habitually adopt a role that inhibits collective performance or becomes a mask that devours its wearer.

Also, group interactions do not occur in a vacuum but within a larger context, which may include events within the organisation, the business environment, or the political and social spheres. Even the rituals and routines of the board itself can be key shapers of context, e.g. the order of agenda items, as the resolution of one issue can affect the outcomes of later ones. Finally, unspoken issues (or, if you prefer, “the elephant in the room”) can weigh on performance with the force of a taboo if they are not somehow confronted directly.

Taking action

After developing a sensitive barometer for group dynamics, boards can take steps to improve their dynamic using five levers.

Check in and check out: Try opening meetings by touching base emotionally instead of getting straight to business, as most boards do. Since it will probably have been at least several weeks since the last board meeting, the opening “check-in” is an opportunity for directors to share not just how they are feeling, but also any important events (personal or professional) that the others may not know about. The check-in builds trust and connection among the board, while providing crucial context so that responses in the meeting are less easily misconstrued. Similarly, the conclusion of the meeting can be an optimal moment for directors to reflect openly on what went well and what didn’t, what could be done differently, and the nature of their group dynamic.

The check-in builds trust and connection among the board, while providing crucial context

Experiment with different informal roles: To avoid individuals getting stuck in a restrictive role, directors can explicitly discuss the roles that the board requires, and which directors (if any) tend to play them. If it is decided, for example, that the role of devil’s advocate is absolutely necessary, it may be a good idea to designate a different director to play it at every meeting, so that the same person does not feel obligated to take it on all the time. This will give each director a chance to play multiple roles while formalising a diversity of perspectives (which can only aid decision making).

Seek professional development for directors: Executive education programmes that incorporate soft skills (leadership, emotional intelligence, group dynamics) alongside technical competencies are particularly valuable. For example, INSEAD’s International Directors Programme uses realistically simulated board meetings, in which directors (read: participants) tackle common objectives such as evaluating a potential acquisition target. Through engaging in this exercise and reflecting on it later both within the “board” and in coaching sessions, directors increase their awareness of—and influence over—group dynamics.

Make the most of board assessments: Annual board assessments are becoming commonplace, but are only as good as the thought and effort put into them. Rather than a box-ticking exercise, the assessment can be an ideal occasion for directors to provide feedback about one another and the group dynamic on the board. The best vehicle for this would be confidential, one-on-one interviews with a neutral third party, followed by a board-level discussion of the assessment results.

Leverage the support of a board coach: Experienced coaches can work with directors individually or sit in on meetings and improve the group dynamic by promoting greater courage and transparency in bringing hidden issues to light.

In sum, all boards should invest time and attention in nurturing group dynamics as an integral part of their work instead of merely addressing it when the board composition changes, e.g. when onboarding new directors.

Vincent H. Dominé is an adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD and directs the Leadership Development Programme in the Global Executive MBA.

This article is based on the author’s book chapter titled “Mastering board dynamics: Embedding a learning and coaching culture in board work” in the recently published anthology Dynamics at Boardroom Level (Routledge).

This article first appeared on INSEAD Knowledge and is reproduced with permission. Read the original article.

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Experts highlight cybersecurity risk amid the pandemic

By Gavin Hinks

Businessman pressing a cybersecurity lock

Cybersecurity is emerging as a key issue during the pandemic, with a host of reports and organisations moving to stress its importance to boards.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) throws a spotlight on cybersecurity and the role of boards while fresh UK government statistics show three-quarters of business say the issues is a “high priority”. Elsewhere, the UK’s most senior cybercrime-fighter has offered a fresh warning in a speech, saying the issue should be as important to chief executives as finance.

Though issued separately, the reports and statements serve to emphasise the growing importance of cybersecurity and its place high on boardroom agendas.

Daniel Dobrygowski, head of governance at the World Economic Forum, hammered the point home while commenting on the launch of the WEF’s boardroom guide to cyber risk.

“Cybersecurity is not just a technology problem; it is an economic and strategy issue crucial for boards to address given the current environment.”

The WEF’s guide offers six principles for boards to follow when addressing cybersecurity issues and comes after an expert team was commissioned to answer why boardroom responses to the danger have been “fragmented”, with the risk “not fully understood”.

“Without a principled foundation for understanding and governing cyber risk at the board level, risk responses have been piecemeal and security gaps have risen.”

The WEF principles include the alignment of cyber-risk management with business needs and a recognition that cybersecurity should be incorporated into board governance.

Increased cybersecurity risk

That chimes with views from Lindy Cameron, chief executive of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, who in her first speech since taking over leadership of the agency reveals concerns that cybersecurity fails to gain the focus it requires and is still to be fully integrated into discussion among board members. She adds boardrooms cannot use the pace of tech development as an excuse: digital literacy is as “non-negotiable” as financial or legal literacy, she says.

“Our CEOs should be as close to their CISO—their chief information security officer—as their finance director or their general counsel,” she says.

Fresh government statistics for cybersecurity breaches are a reminder why Cameron has a case.

Four out of ten (39%) businesses have experienced report a breach in the last 12 months. That’s down on last year’s 46% but the figures rise steeply to 65% of medium businesses and 64% of large businesses.

The coronavirus has had an effect. The report says evidence from the most recent study “suggests that the risk level is potentially higher than ever under Covid-19 and that business are finding is harder to administer cybersecurity measures during the pandemic.”

The report says fewer businesses are using security or user monitoring tools suggesting businesses are “simply less aware than before of the breaches and attacks their staff are facing”. And that at a time when the pandemic has forced a radical change in ways of working making it harder to maintain security levels.

When Board Agenda, in partnership with Mazars, last polled business leaders about their risk knowledge, they revealed worryingly low levels of insight about climate change and cybersecurity. The current reports suggest it may time to fill that knowledge deficit.

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Transport for London – Independent Investment Programme Advisory Group (IIPAG) – Member

By Debbie Wright

Transport for London – Independent Investment Programme Advisory Group (IIPAG) – Member

Member – Transport for London – Independent Investment Programme Advisory Group (IIPAG) Recruiter: Transport for London Location: London (Central), London (Greater) Salary: Non – Executive Director position Posted: 24 Mar 2021 Closes: 11 Apr 2021 Ref: 035212 Position/Level: Board Responsibilities: Information Technology, Operations, Policy, Procurement, Project / Programme Management, Strategy Sector: Public Sector, Transport & Logistics Contract Type: Part-time About us Transport for London (TfL) is one of the world’s best known and most successful integrated transport authorities. In just 20 years, TfL has gained global respect for its innovative and progressive approach to the identification of customer needs, delivery […]

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Tremor International nominates Lisa Klinger for election to its Board as Non-Executive Director

By Debbie Wright

By Talent4Boards Feed Up Talent4Boards – Great Talent builds Great Boards – ISRAEL, Tel Aviv –  Tremor International Ltd (LON: TRMR), a global leader in advertising technologies, today announced its intention to appoint Lisa Klinger to its Board as Non-executive Director and Chair of the Audit Committee, subject to shareholder approval being received at an AGM. Lisa has nearly 30 years … Tremor International nominates Lisa Klinger for election to its Board as Non-Executive Director Tremor International nominates Lisa Klinger for election to its Board as Non-Executive Director From:: Tremor International nominates Lisa Klinger for election to its Board as […]

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Gambling Commission – Chair

By Debbie Wright

Gambling Commission – Chair

Chair – Gambling Commission Recruiter: Gambling Commission Location: United Kingdom Salary: Not Specified Posted: 25 Mar 2021 Closes: 25 Apr 2021 Job Function: Chair Industry: Public The Gambling Commission is currently recruiting a new Chair. The Gambling Commission was set up under the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate commercial gambling in Great Britain. The total annualised UK gross gambling yield is £14.3bn. It is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). The Role The Chair will lead the Commissioners of the Gambling Commission to deliver its statutory objectives and formulate and […]

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