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Monthly Reflections Blog: The art and science of Board Effectiveness. October 2015

Monthly Reflections Blog: The art and science of Board Effectiveness. October 2015

Too much focus is placed on the “science” of Board Effectiveness and not sufficient on the “art” of it. This is because most Boards focus on the process, systems and framework elements of governance, which are essentially the science, and pay less attention to everything else, which is the art!

Let's start with the science. The bar on what constitutes good governance in terms of what a Board need to have in place to have good oversight of the business, has been justifiably raised. Much of this is very sensible and is difficult to argue with. But the flip side of the coin is that complying with these multiple and demanding requirements demands a high proportion of the time a Board is together and indeed apart. It also dictates the "way" a Board works, the dialogue it has and doesn't have and lastly what it gives less focus to. All of these latter aspects fall into the "art" of Board Effectiveness.

So let's think about the way a Board operates or its process. The “science” of Governance requires clear frameworks, systems and processes to be put into place and then adhered to. This gives rise to a certain type of conversation. Inevitably the rhythm tends to be characterised by individuals asking questions, and then typically the EDs explaining themselves until the questioner is satisfied. Then someone else will ask a question that comes from their own field of expertise or interest and a similar process ensues.

The art of generative dialogue or collaborative conversation built on the back of each other’s contributions is unlikely in this kind of exchange. Does this matter? Well the danger is that in this ping pong of questions and answers the bigger questions don't get asked. Is there a better way of doing this? What are we doing this for? What is coming down the tracks that might come and hit us whilst we're focusing on this detail?

The “art” of Board Effectiveness is enabling the kind of value adding conversations around a Board table that have nothing to do with any terms of reference, rule, process or framework. The increasing focus or narrowness in the content of Board deliberation increases the likelihood that there are fewer of those more broadly based, richer conversations which generate new thinking, perspectives and possibilities for Boards. This in itself might potentially deter high quality individuals who think about business or people in a less binary way.

The “art” of Board Effectiveness means that Boards don't lose sight of the future, they learn from past mistakes and don't focus almost exclusively on the present. The “science” of Governance is mainly about safeguarding the here and now to prevent future disasters. That is different from thinking about what the future looks like or requires from a Board and then working towards it in a way that safeguards the organisation and its stakeholders for the long term.

The “art” of governance ensures that Boards know, understand and anticipate the needs of each of its stakeholders in order to have a well thought through vision and strategy. This requires the Board to reach out and connect with different groups, not just its corporate governance masters. We argue that Boards can only describe themselves as high performing if they enable organisations to be sustainably successful. We also argue that this is not possible where the approach is all science and no art!

Posted by Judith Nicol on


Judith Nicol

Judith Nicol

Partner, 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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