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Welcome a-Board, Part 3:

How Effective Board Directors Communicate

This is the third part of our series covering advice for first-time board members, though we continue to receive emails on additional advice for the new board member. One of our readers suggested that you think of your first board as if you are being introduced to your spouse-to-be’s family. Maybe that is not the perfect analogy but first impressions are hard to counter balance should you make a mistake. If you have missed our previous posts on this topic, you can check them out here and here.

As a board director, the way you communicate is just as important as the things you do. Successful directors think before they speak and influence their peers instead of making demands. Continue reading for more expert advice on effectively communicating as a board director.

13. Question in the right way.

Think before you speak. Ask yourself: What is my intent? What is my objective? One savvy director says that he words his questions in a way that will promote discussion and allow the board to examine the issue more deeply.

You need not always ask the first question or make the first comment on a topic. There will be time when you can offer more by listening first to what others have to say. As we said in our last blog, refrain from asking questions merely to get information that you should already have; in other words, do your homework so you don’t have to use meeting time to get up to speed. If you have unanswered questions, schedule one-on-one calls or meetings with the CEO or other directors before the meeting and during breaks.

14. Be time-conscious and make every moment count.

Know what does and does not matter, because time is limited. One veteran director comments, “There is always a director who wants to monopolize the conversation and listen to himself talk. Don’t be that person.”

Stick to the topics that need the board’s attention and action. If the conversation derails, try to gently guide everyone back to the topic at hand. Details matter and often merit discussion, but try to stay out of “the weeds,” unless the issue is the weeds. Those are better left to management.

15. Be open to adapting your communication style.

You will not have the same kind of authority as a director on your first public board that you had as a CEO, where you had the final say. A board meeting is not a staff meeting where you make unilateral decisions and assign tasks. One director, a managing partner at a private equity firm, confessed that after being on the board of portfolio companies where he didn’t have to share power with others, joining a public board required him to modify his style to stop giving orders and rely more on influence.

Because boards act collectively and not individually, effective directors must act through persuasion, convincing others of the merits—and the risks—of a particular decision. Becoming an influential board member requires understanding how other directors receive and process information. You will never finish refining your ability to influence.

16. Be careful about how you discuss previous experience.

Use your experience as an executive officer at other companies without constantly referring to it. As one director said, “It is very annoying for someone to continually say, ‘At ABC company, we always did this.’” Constantly bringing up your past experience as an executive may turn off management and your fellow directors.

Instead, one veteran director suggests asking open-ended questions that compare strategies. “Could there be a better way to do this?” works much better than “At my company, we do it differently.”

17. Ask for feedback.

Director communication should be a two-way street that is not limited to the boardroom or committee room. Most boards have a formal director evaluation process; let that assessment be an ongoing process and seek out the views of other directors on a range of relevant matters. One of the most valuable things a new director can do is ask for feedback on his or her board participation after the first or second meeting. If you are talking too much, focusing on the wrong issues, or crossing the line on management responsibilities, better to learn it quickly so you can adapt.

18. Provide feedback—but do it respectfully.

After you have gained experience serving on the board, be a helpful leader to any new directors. An experienced board director suggests providing positive feedback to new board members by starting out with positive recognition: “I really like the way you did this. However, when you said that, you turned the management off. Is there a better way you could approach that?” Many first-time board directors may be insecure initially; the seasoned director has an opportunity to mentor and guide the new director to be effective.

Have we missed anything? If so, send us an email. We would love to hear from you.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director