Small Decencies: How to Improve Your Board’s People Skills

Board members perform at their best when they can articulate the values the company stands for and model those values by their behavior.

Board members perform at their best when they can articulate the values the company stands for and model those values by their behavior in matters large and small. Everyone is on the lookout for the little, genuine moments that reflect well on the posted conduct codes. More than grand gestures, it’s the cumulative effect of the chief executive’s everyday interactions that will resonate with people and form the perception of their people skills.

These gestures may be termed “small decencies.” Small decencies are the key to a perceptible improvement in the board’s performance, as well as a contribution to a healthy corporate culture. Decencies demonstrate the respect, consideration and kindness people want from their board members. They can be as simple as remembering people’s names. Over time, these single drops of decency create a deep pool of connection and goodwill that can dissolve the cynicism that corrodes a corporate culture.

Decencies emanate from a genuine respect for others and are specific behaviors. Everyone is supposed to act with decency, yet the combination of increasing responsibility and the relentless demands of business often crowd out time for such gestures. Board members are in a unique position to model such gestures on behalf of the entire board and as a model for the executives who are surely watching. Here are some guides to modeling small decencies.

“More than grand gestures, it’s the cumulative effect of the chief executive’s everyday interactions that will resonate with people.”

1. Couch it in culture. Tell your CEO you’ve heard of a way to improve your corporate culture that is virtually free, can be implemented immediately, and doesn’t involve an army of outside consultants. What CEO could resist that offer? Some examples of small decencies: when you convene a meeting, be the first to show up. By doing so, you send a message that you want to listen and learn from others. Don’t ask questions to which you already know the answer. Deliver bad news in person. Horde the blame and share the credit. Recognize good ideas, even if it was your idea to begin with. One inspirational board member says, “I make sure anything creative that’s accomplished on the board is never perceived as my idea.”

2. Encourage accessibility. You can’t be perceived as having people skills if you are never accessible to people outside of the board room. Maybe you can show up in the employee cafeteria and sit down with some executives every now and then. How about open-door office hours, such as university professors have? Too daunting? Pre-plan a low-key opportunity instead. Herb Baum, former CEO of the Dial Corporation, held “Hotdogs with Herb” sessions, which he describes as “fun, casual lunches where I get to spend quality time with a small group of employees … employees get to know me, and I get a chance to know them and listen to their concerns of feedback.”

3. Dissolve executive privileges. Nothing will bring you closer to colleagues than a palpable essence of humility. Yet our organizations are full of symbols of executive privilege that erode trust and connection. Be the first on the executive committee to eschew the exclusive dining room or reserved parking place, and encourage your close colleagues and CEO to follow suit. Come budget time, find cost reductions by chipping away at perks that isolate executives.

4. Appreciate with thank-you notes. Never underestimate the power of a hand-written thank-you note. Using paper to deliver genuine acknowledgement is a handy trick whether it’s discomfort, arrogance or simple lack of time that hinders your letter writing. PepsiCo’s chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi writes hundreds of personal letters to the parents of PepsiCo employees, appreciating the mothers and fathers for raising such exceptional human beings.

5. Put decency on the agenda. Sometimes, our best everyday efforts are eclipsed by one visible action that smacks of disrespect. It’s at crucial times like downsizings and restructurings that reputations for leadership are made or lost. Most employees today accept the reality of job cuts; what they cannot accept is a process that strips them not only of their jobs, but also of their dignity. As a board member, you can work to ensure that decency is on the agenda when your company is planning a lay-off.

Your repeated display of small but thoughtful gestures will not only improve morale but also shape your organizational culture. Individuals at all levels will follow your lead and demonstrate the same decencies in their dealings with peers and customers. You can’t just wait for culture to develop on its own. You must create it one small decency at a time.

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