Why board directors need new leadership skills to challenge the power in the boardroom.

The unique adaptive challenge that Boards face is speaking truth to power.  

The highly nuanced definition of the Chairperson as ‘first among equals’ represents a deliciously ambiguous power. Combining that paradoxical definition with the personal power and prestige of the individual can result in a Board reluctant to challenge the voice of the Chair.

The real dereliction of duty on a Board is silence when dissent is useful and constructive.

Sarah Rouhan recently spoke with Rosamund Christie from Adaptive Leadership Australia about the role and importance of adaptive leadership in the Boardroom and C-Suite.

S – What inspires you to build adaptive leadership in Boards and C Suites?

R – True cultural change in an organisation is inspired by those who work at the very top of an organisation – in both executive branches (C-suite and Board). Working with only one of the executive branches exposes vulnerabilities in the system.  There is a tendency at both levels to think there is no more to be learnt about leadership. Board and C-suite positions are in themselves recognition of earlier success.  This can be an impediment to good practice.  There is always more to be learnt and a deliberately developmental organisation has learning in its DNA. Most importantly it is the capacity of senior groups to work with the human dynamics of the particular context of the moment.  

Boards and C-suite groups often limit their effectiveness because there is an idea that what worked well for me at another organisation or Board will work here.  That fallacy is true at both strategic and cultural levels.  We often see great success by individuals in one context lead to abject failure in another.  Developing capability to work with the particular human system you are in, at this point in the organisation’s history, with the external pressures at this moment in time,  and having a consciousness and deliberateness about this, is what makes for successful Boards and C-suites.  When the Board and the Executive group share the same language and practices around leadership, there is potential for this to filter down throughout the organisation and we know that culture drives performance so building an adaptive culture is … well, it’s just really a no brainer.

S – Why now?

R – Boards and their relationship to the C-suites are at a critical juncture at this moment in time.  The Royal Commission into Banking has revealed failures at the very highest levels in blue chip companies with the threat of criminal proceedings hanging over some.  The ABC Board and CEO effectively self-immolated. The Australian Cricket Board brought disrepute to the game.  And so it goes on.  If this can happen within the most prestigious Boardrooms in Australia, it reminds us that there is work to be done at every level. 

S – When you think about the challenges facing both the Board and the Executive team are they the same or different?

R – We see each as having both shared and unique challenges. More importantly, we see these as adaptive because they require the system of people to adapt to the context and challenges unique to their industry and organisation at any one time. Constant adaptation is a key mindset required for companies to thrive.  Organisations are hungry for innovation and agility in the development of their products and services but they rarely think about these practices as equally crucial to their leadership work. 

S – Well what are some of those unique challenges? 

The unique adaptive challenge that Boards face is speaking truth to power.  The highly nuanced definition of the Chairperson as ‘first among equals’ represents a deliciously ambiguous power. Combining that paradoxical definition with the personal power and prestige of the individual can result in a Board reluctant to challenge the voice of the Chair.  The real dereliction of duty on a Board is silence when dissent is useful and constructive.  But managing dissent is often a major obstacle.  We teach groups to voice opposition with neutrality and compassion and to keep purpose at the heart of what they are doing. 

On the other hand, the unique adaptive challenge that members of an Executive Team face is building a collective Executive Team culture whilst simultaneously representing a single portfolio.  Many Executives struggle to determine where their chief allegiance lies.  Managing the plurality of these roles and not privileging one over the other is a key determiner of successful executive teams. The culture of the team as a cohesive whole impacts the culture and motivation of the entire organisation.

Add those adaptive challenges together and throw in the relationship that exists between the Board and the Executive team and we begin to see that there is much work to be done.  

How do you at Adaptive Leadership Australia work with Boards and C-Suite groups?

We begin with each separately and then bring them together.  We often start with Culture Surveys to help each group recognise how others see them as a collective.  It is a great starting point for building adaptive cultures.  We build a collective consciousness, stressing the challenge of speaking as one AND speaking out.  We find it is rare for this kind of complexity to be spoken about, let alone be addressed and yet everyone recognises that what sits under the surface of a group is the real work to be done.  We find this such stimulating work because it develops the capacity for groups to look at themselves as a system and to build a way of calling themselves out so that they become self-regulating in the most productive way.

 

Australian Adaptive Leadership Program

Find our more about the 2019 Australian Adaptive Leadership Program commencing in May. Applications Close on 31st March 2019.