Feature: Whats your boardroom personality

Saturday, 01 August 2009


    Personality types add another layer of diversity to any boardroom. Domini Stuart reports on how the mix of personalities, and the way it is managed, can affect decision-making.

    What’s your boardroom personality?

    Boardroom personalities – key points

    • Boards not only consist of a mix of skills and experience, but also personalities
    • Personality is a pattern of behavioural characteristics
    • Some personalities are more influential than others
    • A good chairman will manage differences in personality
    • Directors can learn to overcome and respect personality differences

    A board whose directors are constantly at war will not function effectively, but neither will one whose members never question decisions. Rigorous debate is an accepted part of a sound decision-making process, but the nature of any debate depends on the personalities within the group, the dynamics of their interactions and how well these dynamics are managed.

    “Many boards with conscientious directors and a good balance of skills have failed because they just didn’t have the dynamics to capitalise on that diversity,” says Margot Cairnes FAICD, founder and chairman of Zapphyre International, a strategic leadership and corporate transformation consultancy. “What a board needs might not always be what a board wants. For instance, we know that 75 per cent of the population are conservative thinkers. If I were putting together a board, I’d want to be sure it included a few out-of-the-box thinkers. The trouble is no one wants directors who are contentious or who create conflict – and out-of-the-box thinkers can’t help being both.”

    The nature of the conflict is, of course, crucial. Chris Jackson, Professor of Business Psychology at the University of New South Wales, has found that boards which encourage cognitive conflict do well, whereas those which encourage emotional conflict do not.

    Peter Carre MAICD, chairman of Water Resources Group, adds that effective lateral thinkers know how to express themselves in non-confrontational terms. “Even if it is a carapace of congeniality that they don, they do know that in order to move the conventional thinking outside the square, they must express themselves in a considerate manner that brings others along with them,” he says.

    What is personality?

    Personality is not easily defined or measured. Psychologists describe it as an organised pattern of behavioural characteristics – responses that are likely to be repeated in similar circumstances. In terms of measurement, there are many different instruments to gauge all aspects of preference and behaviour.

    At worst, a defined personality can be used as an excuse for bad behaviour – for example: “This is what I am so this is what I do.” At best, it can support growth and positive change.

    “A board is large enough to be quite intimidating, yet small enough to be deeply personal, so it really is quite a fraught environment for group dynamics,” says Jane Walton FAICD, a lawyer, ethicist, teacher and presenter who specialises in corporate governance, board performance and organisational culture. “Thinking about your personality can provide insight into why you respond the way you do and how you see the world, particularly when this is viewed within the context of our cultural background, our education and our family.”

    Anne Skipper AM FAICD has more than 20 years’ experience as a director and chairman of government, not-for-profit and private sector boards. She facilitates the AICD’s Module 8, drawing on the work of Richard Leblanc (see ‘Putting personality to work’, p22) to address individual and group decision-making.

    “We talk a lot about how some behaviours are more influential in the boardroom than others,” she says. “For instance, if you use a particular style or tone to ask challenging questions, you could be branded very quickly as too critical. Using a different tone to ask exactly the same questions could have a very different outcome. I have seen directors who were not being listened to or not having their contribution valued become far more effective by simply changing the tone of their delivery. It’s vital that we take our own style and personality into account when we’re interacting with others, but first, of course, we need to be aware of them.”

    Wendy Simpson GAICD, chairman of Westray Engineering, uses the popular Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (see ‘Putting personality to work’).

    “I am an intuitive person – an N – which means I can often collect three data points and recognise a trend before others do,” she says. “This can be an advantage for the company, but it can also be frustrating. I’ve been on a board where everyone else was an S and insisted on waiting to collect another five data points before they were convinced. By then, we’d lost our potential advantage.”

    Another common difference is the time taken to make a decision.

    “Js make decisions quickly. Ps believe that, if they wait a little longer, more valuable information might emerge,” continues Simpson. “I sat on another board where the chairman was a J and the other board members were Ps. In this situation, you could find that the directors think decisions are being rushed through while the chairman thinks the directors are indecisive. If people don’t understand the significance of different preferences, you can end up with an impasse because both sides are so frustrated. That’s where you need a chairman with a lot of wisdom.”

    While most mature and thoughtful people can move across different styles, we tend to revert to our natural preference under pressure. Open decision-making is put to the ultimate test when a board is under siege; once again, the outcome might rest on the effectiveness of the chairman.

    “The boards I’ve been on that worked best had a chairman who recognised the breadths and depths of personal attributes and allowed them to flourish,” says Carre. “If one personality aspect was tending to dominate, the chairman acted as a good traffic cop, ensuring the more forceful personalities didn’t dominate and that the kindly nature of peacemakers didn’t get trampled. A chairman who is secure and doesn’t feel threatened can lead a board to understand that encouraging personal styles is an effective way to ensure collective wisdom flows in an unfettered way. It requires judicious experience to achieve but, without it, all are left aboard a ship of misery in a sea of anarchy.”

    Carre’s experience of sitting on one board with three different people in the chair provided an insight into the effect of contrasting personalities and styles. “All three were equally successful, despite having very different approaches, because they had the most important thing in common – the respect of the rest of the board.”

    Decisions made by a board are usually very complex at the strategic level and are often complicated by ethical considerations. There are few simple answers and the decision-making process needs to reflect this.

    “If the chairman has an autocratic style, this often closes down any questioning or further discussion,” says Skipper. “It can also steer the board towards a decision that may not be the best one. It has often been said that the combination of an autocratic CEO, managing director and chairman can control the decision-making of the board. It takes a lot of courage for a director to speak up and challenge that kind of culture, especially as it’s often very entrenched and associated with very influential or charismatic individuals.”

    Personality and gender

    Female directors may face an extra hurdle in being branded more quickly than men – pushy if she’s strong, for instance, or ineffectual if she prefers to sit back and listen.

    “If a woman who likes to collect information quickly is on a board with male directors who are more laid back, she might be judged as over-anxious, eager to please and insecure,” adds Simpson.

    While “intuition” is traditionally labelled “female”, Simpson doesn’t believe women are more intuitive than men. “However, if you’re an intuitive woman on a board with people who are not – or even if you just have a different decision-making style – I’ve found that men tend to think you’re different because you’re a woman,” she says. “Often they don’t have the insight to see that it might just as easily be a man saying ‘my gut’s telling me....’

    “I’d suggest that anyone who is considering a directorship asks the board how they make their decisions. If they don’t have the self-awareness to describe the group culture and their decision-making style, I’d question whether it’s worth joining.”

    For a board that is self-aware, some of the most complex decisions relate to the nature of the board itself.

    “Diversity is essential, but what that entails is not the same for every organisation; the tokenistic box-ticking approach is nonsense,” says Walton. “Judgment is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to grow; directors need to take responsibility for their individual judgment in deciding not only who has the skills needed at the board table, but also the type of personality and interpersonal skills that enables the person to both contribute effectively and to draw out the best from other people, creating the right mix for that particular company.”

    While every board is a collection of highly skilled individuals, it is also a relationship system and in the end, relationships within the board and how the board functions are more important than the individuals themselves. Accepting this opens the door to reflection and continuous improvement.

    “Any board can learn to overcome differences and learn to respect them,” says Cairnes. “As long as there’s a willingness to be open to difference, you can take people to a whole new level of honesty, creativity, thinking, effectiveness and mutual respect.”

    Putting personality to work

    Richard Leblanc

    In their book Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work, Richard Leblanc and James Gillies suggest that three behavioural characteristics of directors have a major effect on the decision-making capabilities of boards.

    1. Persuasiveness – which appears to be strongly linked to credibility.
    2. Predictability – how likely a director is to assent or dissent. The more predictable, the less the influence.
    3. Participation – directors who seemed to take an unalterable, individualistic position on an issue lost all of their influence.

    While these characteristics exist in all combinations, they believe that directors can be divided into ‘functional’ – those who contribute in a positive fashion to the decision-making capacity of the board, and ‘dysfunctional’ – those who do not.

    Functional personality types include challengers, change agents, consensus-builders, counsellors and conductors. Dysfunctional personality types include critics, controllers, cheer leaders, conformists and caretakers.

    The Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator

    In use since 1942, Myers-Briggs describes personalities in terms of how energy is received and used (introvert [I] or extravert [E]); how information is gathered and taken in (sensing [S] or intuitive [N]); how decisions are made (thinkers [T] or feelers [F]); and how lives are organised (perceivers [P] or judgers [J]).

    Learning Styles Profiler (LSP)

    How a person learns is a motivational tendency increasingly recognised as central to personality. Professor Chris Jackson, from the University of New South Wales’ Australian School of Business, has a new hybrid model of personality and learning. It proposes that functional and dysfunctional behaviour can be best understood in terms of how well a primitive drive – sensation-seeking – is moderated by cognitions, experiences and self discipline.

    He likens functional behaviour to shooting an arrow successfully at a target.

    Energy, the basic drive, needs to be channelled in the right direction (goal orientation). The target itself must be appropriate (emotional independence). Skills must be honed through practice (conscientiousness). And the archer must know his or her bow and arrow (thoughtfulness and reflection).

    By providing a deeper idea of the mechanisms which led to functional or dysfunctional behaviour, the model opens the door to intervention and change. Jackson believes this could help ease boardrooms away from action orientation, emotional conflict and charisma as opposed towards well-considered decision making based on functional learning.

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