My colleague Victoria Tomlinson sent me this great blog she had written on how to chair board meetings and it set me thinking about what chairing skills are timeless and what skills we will need in the future.
I’ve spent a lot of time sat around board tables, as a member of the executive team, as an NED, and as a Chairman. I’ve worked with some great chairman, some average chairmen and some truly awful ones. Over the years I have got to know what great chairmanship looks like (I liked this image of herding sheep – for some reason it reminded me of a few board meetings I’ve sat on!)
Great chairmen are those who realise they are there to help people think and deal with difficult issues and so they
- Speak last
Great chairmen never start with what they think because that influences the debate.
- Go round the table
Great chairmen make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to give their opinion, and they push hard to make sure that the people who are more reluctant to speak are given time.
- Challenge your board
Great chairmen really challenge the board to think about difficult issues.
- Listen to understand
Great chairmen are obsessed with understanding what others think, even if they disagree with them.
- Sum up
Great chairmen are very good at summing up all the opinions round the table, including their own.
- Strive for consensus
Great chairmen want to reach consensus around the table because they know that divided boards are dysfunctional boards
- If there is no consensus then make a clear decision, and be clear why they have made it
Great chairmen are not afraid of making a decision if one has to be made. They make their reasoning clear and they also make it clear that they expect support from the board.
But will these skills be sufficient in the 21st century? I have written in other blogs how life and work is changing as technology permeates everything we do. What difference will that make? All the old skills will still be important but I believe that there are three new ones that boards should be looking for in the chairmen they are hiring today.
The first new skill I believe great chairmen will need is a deep understanding and real comfort with technology and how it impacts their business.
This cannot be left to CIOs or Directors of Strategy, important though their roles are. Technology is too disruptive, too pervasive not to be central to a board’s thinking. A great chairman will make sure that new disruptive technologies are at the forefront of the board’s thinking.
Diversity of boards will be increasingly important, diversity of age, experience, background, one board even has an algorithm as a member.
So the second new skill that I think chairmen will need is the ability to push hard for a board that is truly diverse and truly inclusive. A great starting point is to have a board that reflects the profile of the company’s customers.
If all of your customers are young then you need young people on your board: if they are mostly overseas you need people who are from those cultures. It’s no good having a board that is diverse if the chairman does not ensure that it is also inclusive (back to making sure everyone has an equal voice)
The third skill is to understand global markets. Very few companies, even the smallest, are confined to their home market any more, so great chairmen will need broad market experience and a real passion to grow the company globally.
If you can find a chairman with these skills, I believe you will be well on the way to success in the 21st century. The challenge for headhunters and current chairmen is that they will need to appoint very different types of chairs for the future, almost certainly not in their own image. Will they have the courage and foresight for this?