Corporate boards often look to improve the talent level of their directors. One way to do that is to get current directors to up their game. I recently asked Beverly Behan, president of Board Advisor, former partner at Mercer Delta and global expert on corporate governance and board effectiveness for her thoughts on what corporate directors can do to outshine their colleagues in the boardroom. Behan, the author of “Becoming A Boardroom Star” and “Board and Director Evaluations,” offered a ton of advice, with the following five tips that can help elevate any director’s stature in the boardroom:
1. Be a Great Team Player
When it comes to the boardroom, being a great team player is essential. Boards, after all, are governance teams.
Here’s an example of how being a team player can strengthen your reputation with your board: The former Chief Technology Officer of a Fortune 500 company joined the board of an S&P 1500 retailer. The company had recently hired a new CIO and was trying to upgrade its antiquated systems. A board member offered to set up a dinner in San Jose for the new CIO and several members of the IT team to meet with people in his Silicon Valley network—people they would never have had access to otherwise. This was an eye-opening experience for the IT team and the new CIO made and maintained contacts from this initiative that were invaluable.
You don’t need a network of Silicon Valley luminaries to be a great team player. Just think about what you can offer your fellow directors and top company execs when opportunities become available.
2. Leverage Your Expertise
When boards recruit a new director, there’s typically something in that person’s background that they believe will provide valuable insights and perspectives in board discussions, debates and decision-making. When an issue arises that’s squarely in that director’s wheelhouse, fellow board members expect them to weigh in; they’ll be disappointed and critical if they fail to do so. A marketing guru is expected to express their views in debates about changes to the brand, and an attorney is expected to ask key questions in board discussions relative to pending litigation.
As such, it’s essential for any board member to have a good understanding of what’s going on at the company in their area of expertise. Boardroom stars often supplement their director orientation by spending time with key executives in their area—a Big Four audit partner joining the board might spend half a day with internal and external audit for a briefing, someone with a commercial real estate background joining the board of a retailer might ask to visit some stores with the Director of Facilities. These initiatives can help a new director lay the foundation for their comments when these issues arise in board meetings—and can better leverage their expertise to benefit the board and the company.
3. Learn To Ask Tough Questions in the Nicest Way
A comment I frequently hear in director evaluations when board members talk about fellow directors that they hold in particularly high regard is this: “They know how to ask the toughest questions in the nicest way.” The tone with which a question is asked has an impact on how that question is interpreted and on the openness of the discussion that follows.
Some directors who pride themselves as “tough questioners” sound like they’re cross-examining Hermann Goring at the Nuremberg trials. A harsh tone and accusatory tenor typically causes management to become defensive and guarded—often defeating the questioner’s very objective, which is usually to “get to the bottom of” an important issue. But delivering the same question in a friendly and tactful way can generate an open and revealing discussion, yielding far better insights and important information.
4. Improve Your Work Ethic
Work ethic is probably the single most important hallmark of a boardroom star. It’s readily apparent to directors and management which board members invest the time to prepare thoroughly for board and committee meetings. It’s equally evident whether a director makes an effort to stay abreast of relevant developments in the industry, the marketplace, the company’s competitors and other facets of the company’s operating environment.
Don’t be the director who tries to pour through their board book just a few hours before the meeting, then weighs in to agree with this director or that point of view, offering little in the way of fresh perspectives. Boardroom stars, by contrast, read the materials well in advance, consider them carefully, develop a list of thoughtful questions and comments and pick their spots to weigh in. No one expects a director to come up with a “zinger” at every meeting that totally changes the course of a board decision. But when boardroom stars speak up in a meeting, people listen; they always have something worthwhile to say. And that typically results from work ethic.
5. Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement is the name of the game for those who really want to shine in the boardroom. Boardroom stars—particularly those serving in board leadership roles—have a genuine desire to make their board or committee the best that it can be. They recognize that feedback is essential for professional development, so long as it’s constructive and genuinely worthwhile.
Sadly, many boards take a “cookie cutter” approach for their board and director evaluations, using outdated forms and scorecards. But boardroom stars are always on the lookout for more innovative and effective approaches that result in feedback that’s far more constructive and meaningful. They understand how important this is, not only for their own professional development as a director and/or board leader, but for the effectiveness of the board as a whole. Boardroom stars not only want to be outstanding directors themselves; they want to serve on, create and maintain outstanding boards.