Robyne Blood, Gillian Coutts, and Sue O’Dea consider whether the next level of performance for directors and their boards is through training the mind to have greater calm and awareness.
The role of directors in the success of any company – public, private and not-for-profit (NFP) – is well understood. Their responsibilities are extensive: corporate strategy, performance, risk, governance and, of course, selecting, appointing and evaluating the CEO.
Capability, independence and diversity are three important factors in selecting the right board. Getting the right mix of these factors enables the board to thrive in an increasingly complex and ever-changing business landscape where demands on directors’ time, attention and performance are unrelenting. Could it be possible that attracting “mindful directors” – committed to an active practice that cultivates focus, clarity, stress mitigation and broad awareness – is also an important factor in board composition? We think so.
Mindfulness is about being able to manage your wandering mind and external distractions, actively promoting sharp focus and insight, while at the same time being aware but not distracted by what’s going on around you. Research has shown the practice – for as little as 10 minutes a day – has an impressive list of side effects, including a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, reduced stress, better sleep, improved cognitive function, enhanced awareness, increased job satisfaction, better work/life balance, enhanced creativity and better overall quality of life.
In our view, mindfulness is a foundational skill for a director. In addition to the previously mentioned benefits, mindfulness is about developing high levels of self-management by switching off the autopilot, cultivating the ability to focus attention at will, in the midst of multiple distractions and perspectives (not to mention reams of information in board papers) and developing heightened self and situational awareness. Mindfulness also cultivates the ability to be more aware of others, both inside and outside the boardroom. In the enduring words of Peter Drucker, “We can’t manage others unless we learn to manage ourselves first”. The benefits of mindfulness at work are now as well researched as individual benefits, with some researchers declaring it a “root construct” that shapes human experience in a variety of ways, including improvements in performance, ethical behaviour, reduced attention lapses, fewer sunk-cost decision errors, stronger work relationships (including harnessing diverse views rather than being caught in conflictual stances) and overall well-being at work.
Training the mind
These benefits from mindfulness require formal training, which can be viewed as going to the gym for the mind. Our approach to mindfulness training includes helping individuals enhance their focus and awareness – critical skills for today’s boards. Focus is about training the mind to maintain sharp focus on a particular topic, conversation or task, with minimal distraction, for as long as you want, without any unnecessary effort. Awareness is about training the mind to be open and to see clearly what is happening internally and externally and make wise choices about where to focus your attention.
One longstanding ASX director speaking about the impact that mindfulness has had on her says: “I can operate with greater speed and clarity. I have more capacity to respond rather than just react”. Building trust has become easier: “I’m less attached to my own point of view and just getting this understood by others, and am more able to deftly inquire”. Self-regulation has improved too: “I am now more aware of when I am stirred up by a conversation, and can choose more constructive phrases and tones in which to respond”.
Furthermore, international studies have found a more mindful approach improves ethical decision-making.
This finding is echoed by the comments of the experienced board member and chair we interviewed: “At the highest level, I’m better able to see interdependencies and act in the interests of the organisation. I find I am able to access more data in different forms and levels across the organisation. I am better able to operate with and access diversity – rather than being limited by my own thinking, I find I can seek and synthesise more diverse perspectives”. Deliberately engaging in mindfulness practices can allow the best of a director’s experience to be applied. Longer-term mindfulness practitioners can develop sharper insight, which ultimately benefits all.
It is also worth considering the impact on a board as a whole if more directors become mindful of themselves and others, and have greater situational awareness. For a start, the quality of dialogue would be enhanced among board members and, importantly, also with executives. Individuals would be better able to see and disclose the assumptions that underpin their opinions and recommendations, and would be more prepared to explore the underpinning assumptions of others. The quality of decision-making would be enhanced, the ability to deal with conflicting views would improve, and board/executive relationships would likely be strengthened, helping the organisation to thrive in a complex environment.
Could it be that the next level of performance for directors and their boards is through training the mind to have greater calm, focus, clarity and awareness, even in the midst of daily business and life’s inevitable curve balls? If you want to achieve more of your potential as a director and in life, the best place to start is with your mind. Why not give it a try?
The Potential Project is the leader in customised leadership and organisational training programs based on mindfulness. With a proven track record of enhancing individual and collective performance, resilience and creativity, The Potential Project works with more than 200 companies in 22 countries across North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. The objective of their programs is to enhance individual and organisational performance and well-being through skillful application of mindfulness in a corporate context.
Instructions for daily mindfulness training
Formal daily mindfulness training is the backbone of cultivating greater understanding of the inner workings of your mind and learning how to manage it to enhance performance, effectiveness and well-being. We recommend spending 10 minutes a day, Monday to Friday, incorporating this daily training into your routine just like brushing your teeth. In general the morning is the best time for most, but it can be done at any time that suits you best.
The training has four pillars: anatomy, breathing, counting and dealing with distractions.
- Sit comfortably on a chair. Feet on the ground. In balance. Keep a straight back.
- Relax your neck, shoulders and arms.
- Close your eyes and breathe through your nose.
- Direct your full attention to the experience of your breath at your nose.
- Observe it neutrally, without trying to control it. Like watching waves coming to, and leaving the shore.
- In a relaxed manner, constantly monitor the experience of your breath.
- To help your focus staying with the breath, count one count at the end of each exhalation.
- When you reach up to 10, start counting backwards down to one.
- Count back and forward like this.
- If you lose your count, start at one again.
- Distractions are everything that is not the breath: sounds, thoughts, bodily sensations etc.
- Any distraction is like a helping friend, telling you that you are off track and not with the breath anymore.
- Whenever you encounter a distraction, acknowledge it and return your attention to your breath.
An app can be a great tool to get you guided through the practice. Search for The Potential Project Mindfulness in your app store.
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