How to Develop Your Winning Board Communication Style



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by Tamara Paton in Interpersonal, Work of the board

A colleague’s communication style is endlessly fascinating (and often infuriating) to me. My fellow director enters each board meeting with answers and effectively dares management to challenge him. He builds rapport with those deemed worthy and wastes no time finding common ground with the rest.

Despite his deep technical knowledge, months of abrasive communication have obliterated whatever respect I once felt for him. It’s a shame really, but one that is a natural consequence of ignoring the soft skills that make or break director performance.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith has seen it all before. In his bestselling book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith identifies 20 habits that hold many successful people back.

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, “I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.”

This is particularly true in the boardroom, an environment that differs significantly from those that many directors experience in their day jobs. Lacking the hierarchy of a formal organizational structure, a board relies on collaboration and influence to reach conclusions and make decisions.

In the absence of a playbook, many new directors flounder during their early years on boards. I know that I did and relied on coaching and peer feedback to find the right balance. Looking back, I made three important refinements to boost my impact on boards. They may seem obvious at first glance, but my experience suggests that some of my fellow directors could use a reminder too.

Claiming the right amount of air time

We all know a colleague who talks too much. It turns out that there are biological drivers of this behavior, as the act of talking actually releases feel-good hormones. Succumbing to this temptation, however, is a literal waste of breath. Thanks to multi-tasking and digital devices, our attention spans have dwindled to no more than 59 seconds. If you go on and on in the boardroom, no one is listening.

In his book, Just Listen, Dr. Mark Goulston imagines a traffic light that applies to board discussions and one-one-one conversations alike.

In the first 20 seconds of talking, your light is green: your listener is liking you, as long as your statement is relevant to the conversation and hopefully in service of the other person. But unless you are an extremely gifted raconteur, people who talk for more than roughly half minute at a time are boring and often perceived as too chatty. So the light turns yellow for the next 20 seconds— now the risk is increasing that the other person is beginning to lose interest or think you’re long-winded. At the 40-second mark, your light is red.

Research suggests that men are more likely to fall prey to this folly. Despite the stereotype of Chatty Cathy, men not only speak more, but also more often and longer than women in mixed groups. Accordingly, gender diversity targets alone will not bring true balance to boards if we don’t change our behavior. In short, having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice.

Asking questions versus stating answers

Management guru Peter Drucker reminds us that “our mission in life should be to make a positive difference, not to prove how smart or right we are.” Consistent with this wisdom, my most effective colleagues use thoughtful, respectfully phrased questions to seek assurance and uncover risk. They seek to understand and even request permission to share their point of view.

In our attempt to make a strong first impression, new directors can find themselves trying to add too much value. If you find yourself adding your two cents to every discussion, stop. Marshall Goldsmith cautions against doing so with a colleague:

Instead of saying, “Great idea,” you say, “That’s a nice idea. Why don’t you add this to it?” What does this do? It deflates her enthusiasm; it dampens her commitment. While the quality of the idea may go up 5 percent, her commitment to execute it may go down 50 percent. That’s because it’s no longer her idea, it’s now your idea.

I suffer from the opposite problem, instead asking questions without conveying a strong point of view. The chair of the MEC board, Margie Parikh, recently encouraged me to tailor my approach to my audience. She noted the value of asking questions of management and staff, while taking a more definitive stance with fellow directors. After management leaves the room, in camera discussions present the perfect opportunity to be direct and show strength.

Saying what we mean

The social norms of a board often discourage conflict and lead directors to soften their language. Communications experts note the two-pronged agenda of double-speak: to represent the topic under discussion and to take account of interlocutors’ views and concerns. It’s a tempting approach to protect our standing by pre-empting the thoughts and intentions of other speakers.

Again, this is where gender can play a role. Research suggests that women are four times more likely than men to be self-deprecating, use humor and speak apologetically when broaching difficult subjects with fellow board members. A recent Washington Post article used extremes to illustrate the damage done by this language. Writer Alexandra Petri translated famous quotes from history into modern-day hedged language:

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
“I’m sorry, Mikhail, if I could? Didn’t mean to cut you off there. Can we agree that this wall maybe isn’t quite doing what it should be doing? Just looking at everything everyone’s been saying, it seems like we could consider removing it. Possibly. I don’t know, what does the room feel?”

Those who use double-speak are often accused of not being fully in control of their arguments. Fortunately, professor Judith Baxter of Aston University notes the possibility of an effective balance. “If double-voicing is used more expediently – that is, as a deliberate linguistic strategy for engaging colleagues at difficult moments – then it could become a highly constructive tool for leadership.” It’s all a matter of matching the approach we use to the situation at hand.


US senator Claire McCaskill warns that “if you fail to communicate, then you fail at your job.” This is especially true for corporate directors where inquiry and dialogue are our go-to tools. By being thoughtful about the frequency, framework, and tone of our words, however, we can significantly improve the influence we have on boards.

Question: Have you seen directors stumble over these pitfalls? How do you improve and invest in your communication skills?

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How to Develop Your Winning Board Communication Style

by Tamara time to read: 5 min