How mindfulness can improve your board performance

Saturday, 01 September 2018


    Gillian Coutts recounts how mental discipline and mindfulness have improved her board performance and capacity to fulfil her director responsibilities.

    Every board talks about the holy grails of culture, innovation, agility, productivity and engagement. It’s easy to talk about board culture and the behaviours we “should” see, but the fundamental question is, how do we embed the micro-moment responses needed exactly where they count? Typically, boards will focus on policy, structure, strategy, risk assessment and, the more advanced ones, behaviour. But it all starts with how we manage our minds.

    With the pressure of quarterly reporting, 24/7 connectivity, information overload and competing deadlines, our organisations’ collective capacity to pay attention is under constant siege. In the midst of this, it’s hard for most workers to be truly “present”; to apply the most recent training on D&I (diversity and inclusion), design thinking, agile or whatever is the latest focus, let alone be alive to risks and other critical issues.

    Overseeing all of this, boards and their processes of governance are challenging. We can end up approaching things in a way that sets off the fight/flight/freeze response in other people — anxiety and fear undermining the psychological safety that is at the heart of safe-to-fail creative cultures.

    If you’d said to me 10 years ago I’d be thinking about mind training, I’d have dismissed it out of hand. With 20 years in supply chain and strategy, I was an executive at Pacific Brands (now Hanes) leading sales and operations divisions of brands such as Sheridan and Bonds. Following the birth of my son in 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer five days after returning from maternity leave. My response was simply to get back to work — work harder, get promoted faster, make my mark. I was juggling an 18-month-old child, chemo brain and a big new job when someone advised me to chill out a bit, asking if I’d considered meditating?

    I knew I needed help, so I started 10 minutes a day of breath-focused concentration practice that seemed to have solid scientific evidence behind it. After a few weeks, I started to notice I was feeling more calm and in control.

    A few months later, a fellow board member told me, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s like you’re suddenly smarter.”

    I was better able to observe my thoughts, and observe what was going on around me.

    Typically, boards will focus on policy, structure, strategy, risk assessment and, the more advanced ones, behaviour. But it all starts with how we manage our minds.

    What is mindfulness?

    Mindfulness is about developing high levels of self-management by switching off the autopilot, focusing on what you choose and developing heightened self and situational awareness.

    Its physical and personal benefits are well understood, but the benefits for a director less so. It can be about impulse control and choice, accessing expertise in uncertainty without being a slave to its bias.

    For others, it’s about listening more and speaking less. Apparently I became “smarter” at the board table when I stopped waiting to speak until I had the “perfect” contribution. Whole debates could be waged and won before I had found the right moment. It turns out the key to confidence for me is less about being 100 per cent certain and more about not over-indulging the thoughts that say I’m not. Becoming aware of this impulse unlocked a greater contribution for me, and the organisation.

    Ultimately, this capacity for more self-awareness in action is the great gift of mindfulness. If we can’t understand ourselves, how can we lead ourselves, be agile and adjust for changing conditions? How can we possibly understand what motivates to lead others? And if we can’t understand and lead others, how do we hope to understand and lead a culture?

    If you’re finding your next board pack hard to focus on, maybe it’s worth giving this “mindfulness” thing a try.

    Brain Booster

    In Here’s What Mindfulness Is (and Isn’t) Good For (posted on Harvard Business Review blog 28 September 2017), Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson — authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals how Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain and Body — explore how mindfulness can reshape decision-making and sharpen business performance, among other benefits. The following is a summary of their key points:

    How it works

    Our brain’s prefrontal cortex is the executive area that controls our attention. When the amygdala — the trigger point for disturbing emotions such as anger or anxiety — acts up, it signals the prefrontal areas to shut down. That’s why when we are anxious or angry, we can’t think so well. If we can calm our amygdala, that allows the prefrontal areas to operate more effectively — and thus to better focus our attention.

    Goleman and Davidson used rigorous scientific standards to sift through many publications on mindfulness and other kinds of meditation. This act of bringing the focus back to the breath seems to strengthen the brain’s circuitry for concentration. There appears to be four real benefits:

    1. Stronger focus
    2. There is less distraction among those who practise regular mindfulness routines. These people show better concentration even when multi-tasking. It means higher productivity and fewer conceptual gaps. As one executive described the risk of having poor focus, “When my mind wanders in a meeting, I wonder what business opportunity I’ve just missed.”

    3. Staying calmer under stress
    4. Studies have shown that those who practise meditation have a less trigger-happy amygdala. That means the brain is less likely to interpret certain inputs as threats and jump on a defence reaction — be it flight, fight or freeze. Research on other groups has also found that people who meditate generally recover more quickly from a stressful event.

    5. Better memory
    6. Those who practise mindfulness also show a stronger working memory, the short-term memory that registers in-the-moment thought processing. In a professional setting, this can bolster a leader’s ability to perform the complex thinking needed for strategic work, problem-solving, and intense interactions with others. Having a less reactive amygdala means a leader stays more calm — which means more clarity.

    7. Good corporate citizenship
    8. Meditation that intentionally cultivates an attitude of kindness has been shown to lead to more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need, qualities of the best corporate citizens — and of the leaders people prefer to work for.

      The bottom line? While you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about mindfulness, there are substantial payoffs from a meditation habit. Think of mindfulness as a way to enhance certain kinds of mental fitness, just as regular workouts at the gym build physical fitness.

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