Power and influence in the boardroom — have you earned your seat at the table?

Tuesday, 02 August 2022


    In terms of credibility and contribution, we all know that some directors are worth their seat at the board table, and that others are not. A small group have a reputation and impact that is worth two or even three seats.

    On your board, who are the heavy hitters? Who are the ones who capture the attention of their colleagues and subtly shape the discussion — the prime movers behind your most important decisions? And which directors barely make a mark in your meetings? Who are the ones who, through silence, ill-conceived views or off-the-mark contributions, lack influence and make little impact? Worse still, who are those totally lacking credibility, whose very presence actually undermines your boards’ effectiveness?

    “I’ve asked similar questions of hundreds of directors and they can always tell me who fits in each category on their own boards,” says Rob Newman, an organisational psychologist specialising in board dynamics. “And, within each board, there’s a remarkable level of agreement as to who fits where. What directors can’t tell me is how they know it — what the visible indicators are. And they can’t tell me with any confidence where they sit themselves.”

    Naturally, every director wants to have credibility and influence. We all desire the respect of our peers, to contribute valued perspectives in board discussions and to have a personal impact on issues and outcomes that really matter. But, as we know from experience, this is something very few directors achieve. So, what makes the difference between the best, the mediocre and the worst?

    During more than 20 years of working with executive teams and boards, Newman and his team of coaches have identified the three key behaviours that give directors weight and credibility among their peers. These can be learned, and they are at the heart of AICD’s flagship course for experienced directors, Boardroom Mastery.

    This is a high-impact, three-day experience facilitated by psychologists and governance experts, including Newman. It involves deep behavioural profiling, an immersive board simulation with real-world challenges and continual feedback and individualised coaching.

    “When you leave the course, you’ll not only understand the criteria you use to assess other directors’ performance, you’ll know how to apply those key behaviours to elevate your own position on boards,” says Newman.

    The three high-impact director behaviours

    The core architecture of influence is the fact that we are social animals competing to make our personal mark, giving support to colleagues and progressing collective goals. This underpins the three high-impact director behaviours — and our best directors are good at all three.

    1.    Influence behaviours — making your mark

    Shaping thinking in the boardroom begins with presenting your point of view in a compelling way. “Good directors speak their mind, they clearly articulate a position and support that with strong logic backed up by evidence,” says Newman. “The best do this succinctly and with balance.”

    The best directors typically advance the understanding of the board as a whole rather than pursuing their own interests or hobby horses. They ask questions and explore areas which engage and enlighten colleagues. And, while they may challenge the dominant paradigm, or speak their mind on controversial issues, they rarely leave fellow directors confused, offended or threatened if they don’t agree.

    “Directors with influence are strong advocates for their position, and they are equally prepared to consider and explore opposing views,” says Newman.

    2.    Support — the act of listening

    In the boardroom, good decision-making depends on robust discussion among independent-minded individuals who are able to work through their different views, find common ground and agree on a collective course of action. Listening is fundamental to this process, and the best directors excel at deep, active, visibly engaged listening. They are less interested in exploring views that support their own position than understanding those that don’t.

    “This begins with inviting your colleagues to share their views in the boardroom, but its effectiveness depends on how well you demonstrate a genuine interest in hearing them, especially if they differ from yours,” says Newman. “Just keeping quiet while you wait to speak again, or polite turn-taking, is not nearly enough. The best directors will even summarise the views of others to check their understanding. Ultimately, you need to show that you’re willing to change your opinion based on the evidence of others.

    Directors who are competent at both influencing and supporting are judged by their colleagues to have earned their seat at the table. The best directors, who are worth two or three seats at the board table, add one more skill.

    3.    Decision analysis — progressing board goals

    The primary purpose of a board is to analyse issues and make decisions that inform executive action. The ability to guide the board through discussion and problem-solving to support the final decision is a higher-order behaviour seen only among the most influential directors.

    “This high-impact behaviour is all about helping the board to navigate the decision-making process,” says Newman. “This includes defining the problem, analysing the evidence, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, forming priorities in terms of opportunities and threats, and agreeing on an optimal course of action.”

    This is often seen as the exclusive responsibility of the chair. However, Newman believes that raising awareness of where a board is in the decision-making process, and what they need to do to progress towards a consensus position, is the responsibility of everyone in the boardroom.

    ”The best directors do this with respect for the chair and always in support of the interests of the board as a whole,” he says. “A director who can guide their board towards a consensus, helping the group to work through competing views with a light touch that supports rather than undermines the chair, will not only be perceived as credible, but will bring real value to the table.”

    Developing your high-impact behaviours

    Boardroom Mastery was designed by AICD in consultation with Newman with his colleague and chair of strategic governance Professor Geoff Kiel. The course is delivered with a team of expert facilitators who together have reviewed hundreds of boards and observed thousands of directors in action.

    “We know what differentiates  the high-performing directors from the low-performers — and in Boardroom Mastery, we train you to improve your own performance,” says Newman. “We inevitably find that directors who employ the three high-impact behaviours are worth far more to the board than their seat.”

    More about Boardroom Mastery

    Boardroom Mastery™ is a transformational three-day course designed for experienced directors. It combines an immersive board simulation with other experienced directors; Real-world challenges led by expert facilitators; Personal analysis and debriefs from an organisational psychologist; and 360° feedback to challenge your thinking and behaviour in high-pressure conditions. Click here for more information on For more detailed information, please visit Boardroom Mastery.

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