Boards are not hugely different from any other group in terms of the things they feel comfortable discussing and the things that they don’t. Observe any sports club or charity committee, any family, any group of friends or any senior leadership team or Board and there will be a familiar pattern.
They love talking about process. Why? In some ways it seems the easy place to start. We all have to deal with process in most aspect of our lives. We might not like it but we know it is necessary to make things happen. Process is not about feelings or sentiment, judgement or opinion: it feels like a safe place to be.
The problem with this is that the questions that need to be asked before process becomes relevant are sometimes missed. For the sake of what are we doing this? What is it we are trying to achieve? These questions immediately take groups on to more tricky territory: that of opinions and articulating something less tangible. But unless these questions have been asked and answered, the process debate will rapidly become circular and frustrating.
Typically all groups, Boards included, are comfortable discussing the dynamics of the wider system in which they sit. We hear things like ”this is an organisation where talent is encouraged” or “this is a place where people of all backgrounds are welcome”. Again this is safe territory. It is sufficiently general and nonspecific to the Board or leadership group in question. But consider these questions: “how does the Board role model the culture of the organisation that it wants to see?” or “how does this Board deal with difficult issues amongst itself?”. Suddenly, we enter the ZOUD, otherwise known as the “Zone of Uncomfortable Discussion”.
In our Board Effectiveness Reviews, we do not collude with this unwillingness to have the conversations that need to be had. Often issues can be easily resolved if the conversations are had transparently and honestly. In Boards, as in every other group, different people interpret things in different ways and that becomes their reality. Un-discussed issues don’t simply go away. Generally they gather in momentum and that is not healthy for Board dynamics and effectiveness.
Often Chairs say to us “this is a Board where we discuss openly and there is a healthy dynamic”. We usually find this indeed to be the case. However just because a Board has a healthy dynamic and “gets on well together” doesn’t mean it has the conversations it needs to have. In our experience the vast majority of Boards are much more comfortable talking about things outside the Board than about their own process. And Board Effectiveness Reviews are the perfect opportunity to explore this difficult territory.