How to fill the skills gap in the boardroom

Friday, 14 July 2023


    There can be a knowledge gap in the boardroom that middle management can help to fill.

    With increasing expert knowledge needed for boards to fully understand  issues faced in cybersecurity, technology, talent hiring, and diversity and inclusion, it increasingly makes sense for the C-suite to bring middle management, sometimes known as B-suite, into the boardroom.

    “Boards are really beginning to see this disconnect in some specific areas, and some of those issues are more critical than others,” says BoldHR CEO Rebecca Houghton. Giving B-suite exposure to board discussions helps them to learn, advance their experience and understand the conversations at board level.

    “They learn how to speak executive, not expert — despite being the expert — to help make C-suite look smarter and bring closer focus and understanding to the board about workforce issues,” says Houghton.

    Exposure to the board can help with retention at the middle management level by building confidence, giving greater empowerment and providing more understanding of decisions being made.

    “Middle managers can provide a conduit to the workforce about what is going on in the decision-making realm that brings everybody together as a team,” says Houghton. “I hear C-suite being frustrated their middle managers aren't stepping up, aren’t being more accountable, aren't taking the initiative — and yet, they haven't really relinquished control," she says.

    “There’s this sense of responsibility without authority. That's a catastrophe. We're freezing our middle managers, because we're giving them one without the other. If a C-suite leader could just do one thing differently, it would be to truly empower their direct reports and really test themselves that they are releasing power in order for that to actually happen.”

    Board 101: Using skills in your organisation

    Zora Artis GAICD is CEO of Artis Advisory and co-founder of The Alignment People. In a Q&A, she outlines to Company Director some ways that boards can help to fill the “knowledge gap” and prepare mid-level managers to communicate with the board.

    Q: How can the board fill its knowledge gap in "expert" areas, including cyber, tech, HR, DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) by drawing on the expertise of mid-level managers/leaders?

    ZA: To access expert insights in cyber, tech, culture and IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) boards should lean into the breadth of knowledge within their organisation.

    • Foster open dialogue with executive leaders — encourage them to share insights from their teams. This requires psychological safety and trust where executives feel comfortable sharing challenges and successes.
    • Leverage internal expert panels — organise panels or workshops led by mid-level managers/leaders who are experts in these areas.
    • Facilitate board deep-dive sessions — spend a day immersed in different departments to gain a first-hand view of challenges and understand the expertise.
    • Access external learning opportunities — attend relevant seminars and workshops to stay current with trends and the changing environment.
    • Use external consultants — when needed, bring in deep-knowledge experts.

    By incorporating these approaches, boards can address their knowledge gaps and make more informed, effective decisions.

    Q: What might be the best way to prepare mid-level managers/leaders to communicate with the board?

    ZA: While direct communication between mid-level managers/leaders and the board is not typical, developing these skills can benefit leadership development within the organisation. The key here is to help them understand how to communicate effectively with the board. This would cover how to prepare board papers and decks, communicate complex issues succinctly and handle Q&A sessions with confidence.

    Four steps to doing this are:

    • Clear communication training — equip them with the skills to present clearly and succinctly. This could be public speaking, crafting a narrative and presenting data.
    • Understanding the board’s perspective — ensure they know its priorities.
    • Strategic thinking — help them to think strategically and connect their operational insights to the bigger picture or the business problem.
    • Mentoring and role-playing — pair them with mentors who have experience interacting with the board, so they can prepare for presenting and Q&A.

    The goal isn’t just about preparing them for board interactions, but helping them grow as strategic leaders who can contribute to high-level decision-making.

    Q: How should mid-level managers/leaders work with the C-suite to add value to briefs or actually work towards presenting?

    ZA: Mid-level managers/leaders can have insights and data that is extremely valuable for the board. They should partner with the executive and senior leaders to ensure that the information they provide is strategically aligned and impactful.

    • Develop a structured approach to providing input — information from this level may be filtered by senior leaders to the executive. Circumvent this by establishing a system or platform where mid-level managers/leaders can regularly share updates, data and insights with the executive.
    • Promote a culture of open communication — encourage them to share positive updates and challenges.
    • Give and receive feedback — after the board paper is presented, share feedback with mid-level managers/leaders. Encourage them to provide feedback on how the process can work better.

    Q: How can mid-level managers/leaders act as a conduit of information from the top down to help keep the workforce engaged in a business?

    ZA: Effective communication does not happen if we rely on cascading information top-down. Instead, it’s a dynamic and multidirectional process. Mid-level managers/leaders are critical in this process, serving as vital links connecting employees, executive and senior leaders, and, indirectly, the board.

    If they are supported and well-equipped as communicators, mid-level managers/leaders are instrumental in the following ways:

    • For top-down communication, they translate strategy and priorities in a tangible, relatable way for their teams to align their efforts with broader goals. It’s not merely about passing on information, but interpreting, contextualising and enabling conversations to create shared understanding.
    • For bottom-up communication, they are an important channel of employee feedback, ideas and concerns from their teams to the executive. They have a close understanding of the operational context and business reality at this level — employee wellbeing and energy, customer feedback and operational bottlenecks.
    • For cross-functional communication, they can facilitate collaboration, knowledge exchange, idea sharing and problem-solving.

    By promoting open communication and transparency, mid-level managers/leaders help foster an environment where employees feel informed and heard.

    Q: Why are mid-level managers important when communicating with the board?

    ZA: Mid-level managers/leaders play a critical role in the communication ecosystem of an organisation, although they don’t often interact with the board directly. They sit at the intersection of strategy and execution, which gives them a valuable perspective.

    • They have a nuanced understanding of operations in their space and should have a pulse on their team’s sentiment, challenges and opportunities. This perspective allows them to provide valuable insights and feedback to the executive, who can relay this to the board.
    • They directly impact how strategic decisions are implemented at the team level. They translate high-level priorities and initiatives into actionable tasks for their teams to understand and work towards the goals. Their communication effectiveness is key to aligning strategy and execution, maintaining a healthy culture and retaining employees.
    • They’re often the future leaders of the organisation. Exposure to board-level concerns and strategic thinking is important to their leadership development. The organisation can invest in its leadership pipeline by involving them in board communication.

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