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A 360-degree View: Moving a Board Beyond a Single Perspective

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by Tamara Paton in Interpersonal, Work of the board
360-degree view

Early in my management consulting days, a colleague paid me a rare compliment. Given that this guy would start barking at me before I had taken off my coat each morning, his more generous moments stand out in my memory.

“You always have a point of view. It doesn’t matter what I ask, I know you have a perspective.”

At first, an opinion wasn’t something I worked hard to cultivate. I learned the hard way, however, that I should jot down a few insightful notes in every meeting, even if I’m only there to flip slides. My colleague was right that I became unlikely to utter the phrase, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

In most workplaces, having an informed perspective is an asset. Directors pore over pre-read packages to raise their game before each board meeting. In certain cases, however, the tendency to lead with a strong point of view can actually be a liability.

This reality hit me a few years ago when speaking with a crackerjack smart colleague. His analyses danced circles around mine and I was always eager to learn what he saw in a situation. Unfortunately, our management team didn’t share my curiosity. They tended to duck and take cover as he conveyed his points like laser-guided missiles.

Rather than opening with an “Aha!” insight, directors can find exploratory questions more helpful. The ultimate goal, after all, is not to win the prize for the sharpest critique or “Gotcha!” moment. Instead, we seek generative dialogue about key issues facing the organization.

Fortunately, our questions and follow-on behaviour can nurture a sense of context and divergent thinking, allowing us to examine a topic from multiple angles and dimensions.

Open with an exploratory question

Suppose management’s characterization of a performance factor appears too rosy. If you point out the unwarranted optimism, management could raise its defences. In hopes of shutting down conversation, they may dodge details or restrict the flow of information completely.

Alternatively, you could ask what factors help management interpret success or failure. How has their view of our performance changed over time? Have there been occasions when we overestimated perceived tailwinds? What consequences arose that might inform our current outlook?

Invite input from fellow directors

After management gives its preliminary response, we can accept the answer or we can engage our colleagues. They may volunteer without prompting, but it’s important to ensure that multiple voices join the dialogue. The significance of the issue will likely determine how many directors join the fray and how hard they will work to advance the board’s thinking.

Hold onto the risk-related insight that first prompted the question

Although you want to remain open to where the discussion leads, it’s important to maintain contact to your original insight. Knowing where you want to land the board’s appreciation for a given risk allows you to circle back to a more direct question that is supported by a 360-degree view. There is a good chance that the conversation has evolved your own thinking, thereby creating a stronger closing question than what you’d offer otherwise.

 

Admittedly, seeking a 360-degree view requires patience on the part of all directors, especially the agenda-managing chair. Fortunately, the approach can actually save time in the long run by smoothing friction between the board and CEO. Board meetings are less likely to resemble back-and-forth rallies with management. Engaging other directors on a topic also encourages their buy-in, so they are more likely to pay close attention to your summation.

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A 360-degree View: Moving a Board Beyond a Single Perspective

by Tamara time to read: 3 min
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