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Building the Board – a Coaching Perspective

Jonathan Passmore, Professor of Coaching and Behavioural Change - Henley Business School

In the past, building a great Board has often happened more by accident than design, or through the unconscious (or conscious) bias of whoever got there first and simply invited people like them to join the ‘club’.

Now, a whole range of stakeholders demand that Boards are seen to be more trustworthy, knowledgeable, legally compliant, transparent, ethical, and diverse.

So how can we – as coaches – influence our clients to have the right mix of thinkers, and to have all the necessary tools and techniques to fulfil these heightened expectations, whilst still empowering them to create economic value for the organisation?

So why are Boards increasingly employing coaches to help them deal with the whole range of new challenges, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic?
There are a number of important ways in which coaches can add value to an organisation, such as:

  • Providing greater clarity for their vision and purpose, helping them to think through their strategy; offering a sounding -board for their approach to their stakeholders, the risks they face and their alliances. In short, helping them to reinforce their belief in what they do and how they do it;
  • Guiding them to resolve relational issues within the Board, moving them from isolated silos to a position of synergy.
  • Encouraging them to consider what changes they could make to the Board – in terms of new or differently-thinking members, the way they function and their expectations – in order to increase alignment, empathy and trust.
  • Leading them to consider how they can optimise their performance, individually and collectively.

We’ve also heard many of the senior leaders in our client organisations raising their concerns about the implications of the lockdown. Many of the issues aren’t, in themselves, new, but the rate of change has been accelerated and they are facing situations that they weren’t fully prepared for.

These new challenges fall into a number of clear compartments:

  • The breakdown in trust and collaboration that stems from the isolation, and the lack of informal, face-to-face contact.
  • The challenge of getting the best from Board members going forward, given the potential for change ways of working, such as working from home, the various digital meeting platforms and reduced use of office space.
  • The dilemma of how to deliver products and services cost-effectively in the light of reduced access to (and demand for) traditional retail and other distribution networks.

These challenges are amplified as the economy returns to normal and shops and offices reopen. In this new world, what is going to be the most effective business model, and what does this mean for outlets, offices and operations?  Coaches are there to help Boards understand these issues and facilitate them to work out how best to address them.

The need to take a broader view
Another aspect of recent changes in the Board’s responsibilities that has been brought into sharper focus by the pandemic is the need to take a wider view of the organisation and its relationship with the world.

Businesses can no longer operate without active consideration of the impact it has on local communities and the environment, as these factors are increasingly important in consumers’ decision-making processes, and this trend extends to young people’s choice of employer and shareholders’ choice of investment opportunity.

A Board’s attitude towards a more sustainable future is shaping its reputation, and the additional need to balance the economic growth of the organisation with its social and environmental impacts cannot be overlooked.

All this further raises the need for cognitive diversity on a Board. In turn, this creates greater complexity in the interpersonal relationships within the Board and with their connections to other stakeholders. Understanding and managing all these expectations imposes a significant burden on senior leaders, and there is often a need to consult beyond the Boardroom in order to ensure that their strategy is relevant and in line with the current trend.

Many Boards are still in denial about climate change, for example, and greenwashing is prevalent. At the time of writing, coaches are split on the degree to which they should be directive about such issues, but there is a growing number who believe we must invite our clients to think about the implications of their attitude towards green issues and how they might be regarded by their audiences and stakeholders as a result.

Who is the 13th fairy?
I often reference the story of Sleeping Beauty to illustrate how important it is to include all the relevant parties in the creation of the vision.

In the fairy tale, twelve good fairies are invited to the Princess’s christening, but the thirteenth fairy – who was not invited – is disgruntled and imposes an evil curse on the Princess.

The lesson is that Boards have to be mindful of including a wider range of influencers as a part of the process, or risk disruption from those who feel excluded or disenfranchised.

As coaches, we need to encourage Boards to consider who they need to consult, and the potential implications of excluding anyone on the fringes. As coaches, we can help them to understand the importance of shared goals and taking the journey together.

We also need to guide them towards assessing the risks of changes in external circumstances – such as that we’ve witnessed over the past 18 months – and what impact that might have on their capability to achieve the desired outcomes. It’s easy to be dismissive of low probability events, and clearly Boards cannot make contingencies for every possible eventuality, but these can have catastrophic consequences, so they still need to be given some consideration.

The shift from individual coaching to team coaching
The response to these newly-emphasised hurdles has been an upsurge in the demand for coaching generally, but team coaching in particular.

I’ve had an increased number of calls from senior Board members asking for team coaching. More often than not, they still appreciate the need for individual attention, but are seeking an integration of the singular with the collective. They want coaching to help them achieve a common purpose and find ways of adding value.

And in turn, the accreditation bodies in the coaching world, including the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) and the International Coaching Federation (ICF) have been swift in recognising the shift, and have launched competency standards for team coaching. We’ve been working alongside them to shape these standards in order that they reflect the trends and ensure coaches understand the nuances of this quite different approach.

Of course, team coaching has been around for many years in various guises, but the added pressures now require a new approach, using different tools and techniques, and a great understanding of the psychological issues involved.

Two heads are better than one…
One of the principle changes in the guidance for team coaching is the deployment of at least two coaches – suitably skilled and qualified – rather than just the single coach, as has been the norm previously. And there are a number of good reasons for this collaboration, including:

  • Diversity of approach – every experienced coach will have developed their own portfolio of tools and techniques, according to their own background, personality and experiences. Having more than one coach for a team multiplies the number of options open to them as they set out a roadmap to cover the client’s key challenges;
  • Eyes on the room – coaches have become adept at picking up on the most subtle of signals through their understanding of human psychology and body language, and it simply isn’t practical to expect a single coach to be aware of this subconscious feedback when faced with six, eight or ten individuals. So having an additional coach enables them both to form a kind of tag team, watching out for each other, and responding accordingly.

The final hurdles, and a new world order
The final hurdles: inertia, fear of exposure and misinformation are far from new, but they have also become more evident in the new world order.

But provided that a Board chooses its coaches wisely – ensuring an appropriate level of qualification, experience in working with Boards and, ideally, an understanding of psychology, they should be able to harness the potential for coaching to help build Boards and enhance team performance.

Competency assessments which can track development, or specific evaluation tools such as a 360 assessment to provide qualitative measurements before and after the coaching are giving a real sense of the value of coaching and thankfully, there is a growing agreement that coaching, like training and other modern organisational management approaches, has a vital role to play in any future-looking business in the 2020’s.

Author bio: Jonathan Passmore, Professor of Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School and programme director on Henley’s Professional Certificate in Team, Board and Systemic Coaching course. He has advised professional bodies such as the Institute for Leadership and Management and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.

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