Making friends: Boardroom edition

Many people have the impression that boards are chummy, made up of members who know each other well. But a few months after joining one of my first boards, I discovered something that surprised me: Those sitting around the table didn’t know each other very well. It turned out that they’d never spoken or met outside of that board room.

Intrigued, I asked others in the room if they’d ever gotten to know the other members. It turned out that outside of board meetings or formal board functions, most hadn’t.

It may seem obvious, but it is important to get to know the other people around the table, whether you are new to the board of a publicly traded company or a long-standing member of a local working group. You sit together for hours at a time, making big decisions over often complex issues. Learning more about the expertise and interests of the other directors can make that work much better.

In well-run boards, the chairman will reach out to new members and get them up to speed. The chair of a committee might reach out to a newly-assigned member. There will often be a formal board induction process. The same is often true for working groups you’ve become a part of — an introduction to others and background material might come via email, and a kick-off meeting might introduce the group. But this is just the start to getting to know people with whom you’ll be working.

Here are four reasons why getting to know the other people on a board or similar committee is worth your time.

Hit the ground running: If you are joining a board, or any other kind of working group for that matter, you need to get to know the organisation and the key topics and issues it is tackling. You’ll have done some reading and research, but nothing gets you up to speed faster than talking to the other members.

It is wise to reserve judgement until you’ve heard each person’s opinions on the issues, but by talking to each other before you sit down at your first meeting, you’ll be better informed and less likely to be surprised at what you hear.

Stranger danger: The perception of boards is that they are close-knit places made up of people who all know each other. That is still true on some boards, but modern boards are changing — they are increasingly diverse with members from various generations, geographies, sectors, genders, and expertise. That’s a great thing.

That diversity also means, though, that a new board member may have met a couple of the other members, but they might not know them well. Walking into the room for the first time is a lot easier if you’ve gotten to know some of the people around the table.

Building trust: Trust is vital to getting things done. When someone gives an opinion, we all make snap judgements about whether we inherently trust what they are saying. If you’ve gotten to know someone, it is a lot easier for you to decide if they are believable. By the same token, if people have gotten to know you a bit, they are far more willing to have confidence in what you say.

This is particularly important for breaking down stereotypes. If you are the youngest person on the board, the only woman or the only one from an industry, giving the other board members a chance to get to know you can be really helpful — and vice versa.

Leave it at the table: Strong disagreements can break out. The topics we deal with in the boardroom are complex and sometimes contentious. I’ve been in rooms where talk escalated to shouting, and others where the atmosphere just became deeply uncomfortable. Having a bit of a friendly relationship with others helps you to leave the disagreement at the table.

How do you get to know people you only see a few times each year? Send a friendly email or give them a ring and introduce yourself. Invite them to get together for a chat. If you can’t meet up, speaking on the phone is a good start. Find out from them who they really are, what drives them, what is important to them, what their expertise is.

You’ll be glad you did.

This column is from Above Board with Lucy Marcus, which illuminates how boards work, the consequences when they don’t work, and how they can succeed. To receive alerts from the BBC about new Above Board with Lucy Marcus columns, please subscribe here


28 October 2014

Making friends: Boardroom edition

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