Writing an article about two words (Boards, Mentoring) that are so ambiguous and widely misunderstood is a real challenge. However, I hope to shed some light on both and highlight the possibility for them to be brought together productively .
The key point is that the dynamics of effective communication and decision making place great pressure on Directors, as human beings, who either do not know each other well, or know each other all too well. The demands of governance are changing rapidly and the people who take on Director roles need help but are frequently the last people to admit they need it.
Board mentoring is a hybrid role, drawing upon elements of coaching, learning facilitation and “pure” mentoring, and is designed to meet the needs of Boards for high impact interventions that enhance critical thinking and decision-making.
Boards in disguise
Much of the problem stems from the ambiguity in what we mean by Boards and the human behaviours that often flow from this.
Boards are chameleon-like entities. In much of Europe and Asia, they show up as two bodies in the form of either a supervisory and management board. The supervisory board is constituted by appointees from the shareholders, whilst the management board comprises senior leaders in an organisation. This latter body often doesn’t call itself a Board, even though it is technically part of the formal governance structure of the company. Terms like “executive team”, “executive committee” or even “leadership team” add camouflage and a bit of confusion as to what their real purpose is.
Unitary boards, common in the US and UK, show up as a supposedly single body. And this where the confusion deepens. As with “leadership teams” in a two-tier structure, unitary boards seemingly jump on any fad to avoid making clear what they actually do. Words like “Board”, or worse, “Committee”, are deeply unfashionable. I merely point out that the decline in the standards of governance across the western world coincides with the invention of the flip chart.
Further confusion ensues. Shareholders, such as VC firms, often negotiate the right with fellow investors to appoint certain Director-roles, such as the CEO or CFO, potentially undermining the “one-team” approach and creating misalignment between the interests of investors and employees in the venture. For example, if a VC wants a quick exit, this might lead to an exaggerated concern for growth rather than brand-building or concern for sustainability.
Family firms take ambiguity to a whole new level and are generally a field I’ve avoided ever since I was asked to coach a scion of a wealthy family, a 2nd cousin, banished to the outer reaches of the firm to look after the investment portfolio. He whiled away his days drinking in coffee shops and wine bars, unable to get a single decision through what passed for a Board.
Another area of ambiguity is the “startup team” who often don’t realise they are a Board of Directors until too late. Allocating equity, raising finance and negotiating a suitable Board protocol, voting writes etc requires engineering every bit as complex as an NPT-3 algorithm. Startup founders all too often simply outsource these decisions and fail to anticipate that not only do these governance issues directly impact the survival of the firm, but they can also only be made by referencing the values and goal-systems of the founders. I see this as a very common blind-spot, and lawyers and accountants are all too happy to muddy the waters between “best practice” and “value decision”.
For example, the allocation of equity between founders looks very different depending on whether you are addressing risk practices advised by lawyers, or whether you are weighing it according to contribution to the development of the venture.
The distinctive role for Mentors
This is where mentoring places a role. As a Board Mentor, I can use a mix of coaching skills (contextual listening; discovery questioning, etc), mentoring techniques (story-telling, truth-saying) and learning interventions (grounded perspectives on the climate emergency; inequality, etc), to bring to the Directors their true role: The long term health and well-being of the venture, in the midst of rapidly changing legal, social and political norms.
Simple Voting vs Critical Thinking
In this respect, I remind them that whatever else they might be doing as a “team” in terms of off-site discussion, when they come together as a Board there are things that MUST happen, and HAVE to go well. Options need to be identified and researched, and an appropriate method of decision-making chosen. For example, a simple majority voting is not always the best way. I have helped Boards develop weighting-tools and selection grids that can create more clarity and transparency about what is driving the Board to a certain decision, and ensure that all the key factors are properly thought through. This process prompts dialogue and critical thinking.
Death by Flip-chart vs Goldfish Moments
Rather than rely on superficial brainstorming, and generating reams of flip-chart paper, I will ask the Board to go deeper. For example, I use a gold-fish method where I coach each member for 2 minutes, in front of the Board. The other members write down keywords or phrases which catch their attention. These are then stuck on the wall using sticky cards and arranged into themes and commonalities. Overlaps and duplicates are removed. We then establish a hierarchy of themes, grouping the major headings into categories. Finally, we try to establish the relationship between the categories, such as competing or contradictory values, or threshold factors (things that must be achieved for other ideas to work). What emerges is not a list to be typed up in the following few days, but a dynamic model that triggers in-the-moment dialogue, debate, argument, and critical thinking.
The Meaning of Mentoring
As I mentioned above, Mentoring is also a term fraught with ambiguity. In this respect. The above example might be described by some as Board Facilitation, and it is true there is some overlap with Board Mentoring, but also significant differences. Principally, this is about a relationship through time. As a Board Mentor, I work with the Board and each individual members, racially over months. This often involves executive coaching delivered by myself or associates working as part of a team, with a contract to enable “note sharing” on common themes.
Not More Consultancy
Board Mentoring might also be described as Board Consultancy. Again, a consultant might do some of what I’ve described above but often puts the emphasis on their own diagnosis and solution to the problem. The key distinction with Board Mentoring is that the outcome is not a specific decision or recommendation, but the development of the capacity of the Board to identify and resolve complex problems on its own.
To a much greater extent, Board Mentors develop a trusted relationship with each individual and also demonstrate the ability to read-the-room and pick up the subtleties of group dynamics. For example, I recall mentoring a Board with a fairly even distribution of men and women. However, despite the apparent equality, the suggestions from the women were frequently overlooked and only recognised when offered a few minutes later by one of the men. When I fed back this tacit bias at a pause just before the break, there was a general shock, except for the women who had noticed this pattern but felt unable to surface it. Along with tacit behaviours, this self-censoring was also part of the conversation.
In another example, a Chair began an agenda item of sustainability by saying “This item shouldn’t take very long, we’ll probably only need 15 minutes or so”. This had a chilling effect on the room and signalled that anyone raising awkward or difficult issues about sustainability would not be looked on too kindly, as lunch was approaching. I pointed out this noticeable shift in energy, and then asked the Chair what the difference it would have made if he had begun by saying “I know people feel passionate about this, and so I’m expecting a vivid and energetic debate. I’m wondering if we need to work through lunch to get through it?” This is a good example of conditioning, and how the Chair especially can set the tone, and turn the temperature up or down, as needed.
This ability to work in-the-moment is closely connected with coaching (and also facilitation) to be fair but is unlike the more presenting and directive style of consultants. One reason why I don’t simply use the term Board Coaching (which is also a thing), is because in the examples above I am drawing upon the knowledge and resources I have as a Mentor to catalyse or disrupt the flow of a Board meeting, that can often lapse into routine bureaucracy or avoidant stand-offs. In contrast, the coaching ethic is allowing the client, the Board in this case, to set the agenda.
Mentors bring resources Directors want, but are too shy to ask
As a Board Mentor, I recognise that no matter how experienced might be in terms of running a business, technology and finance operations, many boards lack the resources to self manage the human dynamics effectively, and in some cases can be quite naive. Having the ability to hit pause, and intervene at critical moments, is key to reminding them who they are, why they are there, and what they want to achieve.
Mentors work with Data
To illustrate the point of how Board Mentoring can make an impact I will describe Audio-Playback. I draw upon action research methods to support my Board work, and surprisingly one of the most popular interventions is to audio record the board meetings and have them professionally transcribed. I highlight key phrases and passages, and then play-back sections and use this to analyse patterns in the group. As in the example above, we “code” keywords and then categorise them, revealing the inner workings of a conversation that they were part, but not fully conscious, of,
For example, a member who believed they have support in the room due to a voting outcome might be confronted with the awkward silence that they might not have noticed during the discussion. We can then identify a lack of enthusiasm and commitment to the follow through on this decision, that would typically derail any execution. All of this can be identified upfront.
Recording confidential conversations might seem odd in an era of concerns about privacy and intrusive technology. But Boards should be minuted in any case. And most of all, Directors like the data-oriented approach. Conversations are turned into a resource for group learning. The ability to draw upon research tools as a form of learning intervention sets mentoring apart from coaching.
In summary, the distinctive features of Board Mentoring are as follows:
- Based on a sustained relationship with the whole Board over months, even years
- Works on the decision processes and team dynamics, not a specific outcome or recommendation
- Board Mentors draw upon coaching skills to generate changing conversations
- Works in-the-moment, like facilitators, intervening to catalyse Board discussion, often about unseen patterns impeding the performance of the Board
- Board Mentors can draw upon a wide variety of methods, such as research techniques and other learning interventions
- Board Mentors redress the lack of competence in the Board and bring insight and learning resources to bear.
In conclusion, Board Mentoring can play a pivotal role in Board effectiveness and performance but is not yet widely understood or practised often. I think this needs to change. Post-pandemic and hearing into the climate emergency, and facing unprecedented demands for greater inclusion and social justice, Boards will need to be on top of their game. Board Mentoring provides a distinct form of support that neither consulting, facilitation nor coaching can provide.