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The Generalist Director: 4 Ways a Broad Thinker Unlocks Insights

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Late last year, I interviewed with an executive recruiter for a board role. Initially, the conversation flowed nicely and my hopes were high. At some point along the way, however, things changed and shifted into what felt like a bad date.

Looking back, the vibe unraveled as the recruiter walked through his checklist of desirable skills and attributes. He grew increasingly frustrated as he tried to sum up my candidacy in a sound bite. Was I an expert in cybersecurity? Supply chain optimization or large IT systems implementation? Was I a CPA with hundreds of hours auditing the industry?

Only questions about my knowledge of cardiac surgery or open-pit mining would have made things worse.

In fairness, the questions reflected what the board wanted: a specialist. A specialist in any of a dozen fields in which a crisis might arise. As organizations become increasingly sensitive to risk, new directors might as well introduce themselves as “I’m the one who will help the board handle [insert disaster scenario here].”

Without question, directors with subject matter expertise make invaluable contributions to their organizations. They serve as a brain trust for management. They point their peers to the most critical information informing a decision. And they share lessons learned that may avoid costly missteps.

In my consulting work, I’ve seen a number of boards stack their roster with specialists in hopes of capturing these benefits. When the board’s collective effectiveness falls short, they call me in to assess and improve their dynamics. What they don’t realize, however, is that it’s not a simple matter of how they work together. The heart of their challenge lies in whom they have around the table in the first place.

Boards are more than their list of skills mastered and industries transformed. In addition to the technical specialists, we need generalists, those who offer a fresh perspective and the ability to connect the dots.

Doing so is a unique strength in and of itself, one that many people mistakenly believe they have covered. Unfortunately, we rarely gauge our abilities accurately when it comes to soft skills. It’s a bit like trying to dance — everyone thinks they are good until they watch themselves on video.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution: recruit generalists. Add interpersonal skills to your board’s wish list. Test critical thinking during interviews. Recognize strategy as something that not everyone does intuitively well.

When you do these things, you’ll find the generalist director bringing 4 key strengths to your board.

The generalist will navigate issues that span multiple areas of expertise

Board-level issues rarely fit into a single box. Accordingly, we need directors who can navigate issues found at the intersection of colleagues’ expertise. The KPMG Board Leadership Centre recently identified eight priorities for boards in 2017, six of which span multiple issues like technological innovation, business model disruption, demographic shifts, political instability, regulatory expectations, and crisis management.

In the face of increasing complexity, subject matter experts may be tempted to dig into the risks and opportunities surrounding their own areas of interest. A specialist may be fully capable of crossing silos, but human nature feels drawn to the familiar when under stress. In contrast, the generalist brings no such bias to a discussion.

The generalist builds strong relationships with management

On occasion, I have seen a specialist director form a strong bond with his management counterpart. More often, subject matter experts rub management the wrong way. You know what I mean if you’ve ever seen a retired brand management executive try to out-CMO the CMO.

Generalists, on the other hand, can approach management from a place of curiosity. They can’t come across as a know-it-all, because they are more of a “know-a-bit-of-it.” On my boards, I enjoy surprisingly strong relationships with finance leaders, in part because I acknowledge how much I have to learn from them.

The successful generalist is a fast learner

Although the generalist may not be a master of any one particular area, they can’t rest easy in their ignorance. “Golly, I don’t know…that’s not my area” will never be an appropriate comment in the boardroom. A lack of expertise can create friction when team members must wait for others to catch up. Over time, generalists develop the ability to case new situations so quickly they avoid slowing their colleagues down.

The generalist facilitates creativity in others

If you are a fan of jazz, you know the magic of collaboration. Musicians arrive at a session with a solid command of their instrument. This mastery of technique and fundamentals frees them up to be fully present and open to discovery. Every improvisation benefits from a facilitator, someone like Louis Armstrong who serves the ensemble with an empathetic and generous ear.

In the boardroom, the generalist facilitates collective creativity in the same way. They don’t arrive with an axe to grind or a desire to show off their own “special snowflake” status. Instead, they shine a light on others’ contributions and create opportunities for peers to play off of one another.

 

These observations don’t relieve the generalist of the need to be known for knowing something. We must bring more to our boards than a sunny disposition and listening ear. This is especially true for as long as nominating committees continue to emphasize checklists of skills and experience.

One of my boards recently invested in a detailed peer assessment informed by one-on-one interviews / therapy sessions with a governance consultant. The resulting insights revealed interpersonal skills — not sector or functional expertise — as the key performance differentiator.

This is good news for generalist directors who have an aptitude for people and problem solving. It also represents an opportunity for specialists to join forces with generalists to create opportunities for learning and impact. Together, we can nudge to the pendulum back to a more balanced view of ideal board composition.

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The Generalist Director: 4 Ways a Broad Thinker Unlocks Insights

by Tamara time to read: 4 min
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