– Nancy Falls
Generous Listening: Creating Great Teams at the Boardroom Table
Baseball legend Casey Stengel excelled as a player, but he is perhaps most famous for his years as a manager. As he said it so well, “Finding good players is easy. Getting them to play as a team is another story.” It is critical to get the right players around the boardroom table and keep them focused on addressing the right issues, challenges and opportunities. But figuring out how to get them working on those matters effectively is just as critical. How do you get your board members to feel and work like a team?
In the old days, we could just get golf buddies, business pals, and friends from the club, church or various affinity groups to join our boards. We were already a team of sorts, so we just brought that quality to the work of our organizations. With what I affectionately call “line of sight” board recruiting, new board members were well-known by one or more of the existing board members. A friend of mine calls it relationship recruiting. You get the idea. It wasn’t a totally bad approach. Calling on an acquaintance for board service increased the likelihood that you would add to your board someone you believed had other qualities – the touchy-feely ones – that are so important to building great board group dynamics. However, just reaching out to your buddies is no longer considered best practice; this approach can miss a wealth of talent. The large size of many nonprofit boards exacerbates the challenge of creating true teaming, as boardrooms become more diverse in terms of skill sets and backgrounds. But being deliberate about adding directors with those touchy-feely qualities is just as important as it ever was. There are several hard to measure, but really important, qualities you must have around your boardroom table. Among my top five is Listening Generously (Michael Jinkins, 2009, Called to be Human).
The best boards consist of individuals who each bring something different to the table, something that they can contribute to the work the board must do for the organization: industry knowledge, financial acumen, legal perspective, marketing, community relationships, and so forth. A great board is not a group of clones. The richness of different backgrounds is the solution, as well as the problem.
After all, marketing people don’t think like human resources professionals. Lawyers don’t think like finance jocks. And some of the greatest nonprofit mission visionaries are successful because they don’t spend too much time thinking about any of those inside, functional areas. But in the process of becoming, say, a finance jock, one develops some pretty deep-seated biases. Take a pet issue of us finance folk: risk. Less is more for most finance people, unless of course we are talking about significant returns, diversification, and appropriate contingencies, if not hedges. So how do the ideas of the most creative marketing or mission/benevolence-oriented minds get thoroughly heard by the hardcore finance jock? It requires listening with generosity.
Listening generously means listening with the intention of finding value in the speaker’s words. In order to listen generously you must decide at the outset that you want to like the ideas; you want to agree. Author Peter Bregman (2012, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things) argues that you don’t have to like business associates, “you just have to work with them.” What this means is you must at least respect them or, said another way, you have to like aspects of them. You have to respect and appreciate what they bring to the table.
Listening generously is difficult because we come to the table with not only our own occupational biases about the right courses of action, but with biases against and/or about those other disciplines: “those sentimental human resources people… those bean-counting CFOs… those diplomatic-to-a fault civic leaders…” Biases get in the way of listening generously because, before they even speak, we: 1) think we know what they are going to say, and 2) already think they over-think about certain things. But if board members work really hard at generous listening, it can make an extraordinary difference in how they work together.
It is crucial to be deliberate about cultivating a board that listens generously to one another. I have worked with and on lots of boards where people didn’t necessarily like one another, but they did trust and respect each other. The ability for board members to trust and respect one another when they come to the table with increasingly different skill sets, backgrounds, areas of expertise, biases and, yes, prejudices is not necessarily easy or automatic. At The Concinnity Company we utilize a methodology for leadership and governance advising that takes the would-be power struggles of ideology, strategy and process and turns them into reasons to come together through strategic alignment of the dynamic personalities and diverse skill sets within boards of directors and C-suites. With intention and help, board directors can learn to seek voices that challenge their own ideas even, or especially, when they think they are right. This is true generous listening.
Good organizational governance involves the harmonious arrangement of people, processes, and systems to balance the diverse goals of stakeholders as organizations go about the work of achieving their goals. That work starts with good teaming of the diverse players in the boardroom. It requires commitment to honest, respectful dialogue and generous listening. It is not easy. The good news is that it can be taught and cultivated. The great news is that it powers organizational performance and player satisfaction – the stuff of personal and organizational legacies of significant contribution.
Nancy Falls is CEO of The Concinnity Company, a firm that helps companies transform the way their boards and leadership teams work together, and author of Corporate Concinnity in the Boardroom: 10 Imperatives To Drive High Performing Companies (2015, Greenleaf). With more than thirty years of experience in and around the C-suite and the boardroom, Falls is a leadership and governance expert who understands what it takes to drive authentic success. For more information, please visit www.TheConcinnityCompany.com.
This article is reprinted from Vol. 2, No. 2, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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