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Monthly Reflections Blog: Board Effectiveness and The Parsifal Trap. May 2017

Monthly Reflections Blog: Board Effectiveness and The Parsifal Trap.  May 2017

The legendary knight of the round table Sir Percival (or Parsifal) left home in search of the Holy Grail, finally arriving at Grail Castle where he saw the magnificent Grail Procession. However his joy was short lived as he awoke the next morning in a damp and misty field to find that everything had evaporated.

And so it can be with Board Effectiveness Reviews. The Parsifal Trap is when a Board believes that the Board Effectiveness process is an end or the goal in itself. Where this is the case, like Parsifal, the Board will soon find itself waking up in a metaphorical cold field to find there is no sustained added value from the work.

To achieve long term value from Board Effectiveness Reviews, Boards must be prepared to ask questions that go beyond their Board processes or simple observations about how the Board members work together. Boards do not, or rather must not, operate in a "bubble" that doesn't connect with their stakeholders or the eco system in which they operate. Gauging their preparedness to think about this or to review how equipped they might be to incorporate these elements into their reflections and decision making is central to a Board’s ongoing effectiveness.

As such an "outside in" focus can be helpful. Rather than just asking the Chair what he or she wants to address inside the Board, the bigger and more important question is what the future demands of this Board and how ready is it to face those challenges? These are difficult questions but it makes the Board think about its stakeholders and the context in which it sits.

A Board can have a robust strategy that makes sense on paper, great processes, good governance, competent Board members, a healthy Board dynamic and a positive culture. But all of these things are only of service to the long term sustainability of the organisation and its shareholders if the Board is forward looking and actively considering and preparing itself for the next set of challenges that are coming down the road.

That is why Board Effectiveness Reviews are not easy things for Boards to open themselves up to. What has worked really well in the past might not work quite so well going forwards. This can be a difficult thing emotionally for high achieving, successful individuals to embrace: there can be a feeling that they are being criticised or being told that they are not good enough. But that very defensiveness can lead them into the Parsifal Trap. Openness, curiosity and humility are critical if they are to avoid it.

We argue that where a Board Effectiveness process does not ask the question of how prepared a Board is to face the future, it cannot deliver added value in the medium or longer term because it will quickly become irrelevant. As the old saying goes, “if you do what you have always done, you get what you have always got”.

In our experience of delivering Board Reviews we have learned the importance or ensuring that the Board is really clear about the kind of output that it is looking for, that it is open to moving out of its comfort zone and prepared to overcome short term challenges in order to reap long-term rewards.

Posted by Judith Nicol on


Judith Nicol

Judith Nicol

Director, Leadership Services

Judith joined Warren Partners recently and heads up the leadership coaching practice, which works exclusively with boards, board directors and senior leaders.

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