I’ve spent much of my career advising senior management teams and boards of directors, as well as sitting on boards. And I’ve learned something that I didn’t know I knew until the pandemic hit. It’s something that exists in most groups and is fairly normal. Here it is: In most board meetings, a small percentage of the participants (perhaps as little as 20 percent) do most of the talking, while the vast majority stays relatively quiet.
In moments where diversity of thought and opinion is not a nice-to-have but a must-have—such as in a major economic disruption—this can be dangerous.
INTROVERTS AND EXTROVERTS IN THE BOARDROOM
It is generally accepted that the world is split roughly evenly between introverts and extroverts. Introverts are quieter. They speak less frequently than extroverts, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Warren Buffett, Rosa Parks, Charles Darwin, Al Gore, Albert Einstein, J.K Rowling, Mahatma Gandhi and Google’s Larry Page are all introverts. (See “The Secret Power of Introverts,” Jenna Goudreau, Forbes.)
In boards, some roles naturally lead to more speaking. For instance, CEOs need to share their thinking on the state of the business and on personnel matters. CFOs have to provide information on the company’s financial circumstances. This is normal and necessary.
However, when the topics under discussion involve strategy, and when a fulsome, well-rounded conversation would be beneficial, typically a few members of the board dominate the conversation. As a result, the board arrives at important decisions by drawing on just a fraction of the insights and expertise embodied in the members.
I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about. It’s the difference between introverts and extroverts:
• Introverts prefer less stimulating environments and tend to enjoy quiet concentration. They listen more than they talk, and they think before they speak.
• Extroverts are energized by social situations and tend to be assertive multi-taskers. They think out loud, expressing their thoughts as they occur to them. And they think on their feet. (See “From Obama to Gates to Einstein: Unlocking the Secrets of the World’s Most Powerful Introverts,” Brent Lambert, FEELguide).
If all of this is true, then clearly a boardroom is an extrovert’s paradise. After all, board members are often asked to give their opinions on important subjects with less-than-complete information, and typically in compressed timeframes.
I had a chance to sound out a few introverted executives who sit on multiple boards as I was preparing to write this article. While each of them said it more elegantly than what I’ve written here, their collective perspective can be summarized as follows: “Much of what is covered in board meetings is not important enough to merit my taking the time to contribute, and much of the air space is being taken by the same few people. If and when I have something to say, I will say it.”
NORMAL VERSUS DISRUPTED: IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE
During normal times, letting extroverts dominate a boardroom discussion may be a lost opportunity to capture everyone’s thoughts. But it won’t likely pose a major problem for the board’s ability to serve its purpose. In disrupted times, however, this can be a major problem. When the stakes are high and emotions are running hot, extroverts seek even more interaction and engagement, while introverts become even more thoughtful, reflective and quiet.
We all become even more of who we are during crises—and board members are no exception. The natural tendencies of both introverts and extroverts become exaggerated during turbulent times. The result? The few-people-doing-the-most-talking dynamic grows even more pronounced.
All of us are currently embroiled in the largest disruption in a generation: the Covid-19 crisis. Balanced, holistic, thoughtful and well-informed analysis and decision making that draw on everyone’s input—not just that of a few—are crucial now. For some organizations, choices made in the boardroom will spell the difference between whether the company survives the crisis or goes out of business. Why miss out on ideas and perspectives that could help lead to the best-informed decisions?
TIPS FOR HEARING FROM ALL BOARD MEMBERS
How can companies make sure that decisions coming out of the boardroom are sound, that all ideas have been brought to the table, and that all voices have been heard? I recommend the following tips:
• Assign pre-work. Give an assignment in the pre-reading for the upcoming meeting that asks everyone to prepare to speak about a statement, a situation or a decision that requires discussion at the meeting. If introverts know they’ll have a speaking part, they will step up.
• Focus the meeting agenda. Structure board-meeting agendas so they cover fewer topics and dedicate more time to strategic discussion. Many, even most, board agendas are tightly planned, and the natural inclination is to trade off adequate time on each topic so members can “check the box” on as many topics as possible. During times of crisis, narrow the list of topics to the critical few, and allow adequate time for quality thinking and the exchange of ideas. Or, arrange a special board meeting that has no agenda other than, “We have to talk about the crisis at hand. Come prepared to speak.”
• Get everyone’s input. Ensure that all board members—including the most reserved among them—provide their input and commentary on the critical topics listed on the agenda. This is a time-honored facilitation technique, yet in the interest of time, it’s not followed in many boardrooms. Merely having the board chair frequently say, “We really need to hear from everyone” can be helpful. But also consider naming someone who’ll draw out the introverts in the boardroom and get them talking. That might be the CEO, board chair or an “outside” facilitator (a consultant, a senior member of management who’s respected and neutral, a former CEO). Whoever this person is, he or she can be charged with helping to invite input from the introverts, so their contributions aren’t lost.
• Introverts, lean in! Now is the time when your organization needs you the most. As an introvert myself, I can tell you that it takes real effort to contribute when extroverted people are dominating the conversation. Resist any urge to stay quiet. The decisions and actions that the board you’re sitting on takes over the next several quarters will powerfully affect the organization’s fate not just in the near and medium term but also in the long term.
When diversity of thought matters most, boards must be especially vigilant in managing naturally occurring human dynamics that can prevent that diversity. By applying the tips described here, boards can ensure that even their most reserved members contribute to the pool of ideas and insights essential for making the right decisions in disrupted times.