Improving boardroom dynamics for organisational success

July 15, 2023

How do you improve dynamics in the boardroom and increase the effectiveness of top management, thereby enhancing the success of the entire organisation?

Stay in constant motion as a management team and cultivate self-criticism, as advised by former CHROs Anne Jaakke and Ramon de Kok based on their own experience.

They have developed a program called The Board Boost for this purpose. In episode 64 of the HR Podcast, the former CHROs explain why, what it requires from the HR director and other board members, and what benefits it brings to the organisation.

"To us, how teams collaborate and reach certain strategic decisions is inefficient."

To provide answers and share their own rich experience, Ramon de Kok, a partner at Executive Search Bureau Maes & Lunau, and Anne Jaakke, a coach for CHROs and CEOs, spoke with Toine Al and Pieter Lieverse. Additionally, they will be delivering a masterclass titled "How to Forge an Executive Team" at the Leadership in HR Summit 2022 on June 16.

Both of you have served as CHROs. Why did you decide to transition to roles outside the boardroom?

Ramon: "I find the game within the boardroom very enjoyable. As an HR director, you invest a lot of energy in it, along with your fellow board members. On the other hand, being an HR director means being constantly driven by external factors. A while ago, I reflected on this and concluded that I wanted to delve deeper into the game within the boardroom and invest all my time and energy into improving teams in that setting."

"The trigger for me was when I had an accident and temporarily ended up in a wheelchair. I was 47 at the time and asked myself the purpose question: "What am I doing, and do I want to continue doing it for the next 20 years?"

What exactly needs improvement in the boardroom?

Ramon: "To us, how teams collaborate and reach certain strategic decisions is inefficient. People have their own agendas and don't always listen attentively to others' ideas. As a result, decision-making is often not well thought out, and the whole organisation suffers. Surprisingly, this issue receives little attention."

"The major problem many people face in the boardroom is that they no longer receive feedback."

Why should the top dogs of the organisation, often with long tenures, participate in the Board Boost? It's as if you're sending the family doctor to a first aid course...

Anne: "The major problem many people face in the boardroom is that they no longer receive feedback. In fact, they are no longer open to feedback from the organisation. Within the boardroom, people try to achieve things for their own purposes and have lost sight of how to achieve the best results. They no longer dare to have real conversations, such as how can we improve as a team? How can I become a better leader?"

And will that be possible with your intervention?

Ramon: "We can provide insight into how people in the boardroom can leverage the dynamics of the team to extract the maximum potential. Because that team dynamics change every time a position changes."

"Yes, and there's also the fact that you have all these top performers in a team like that. They've metaphorically won the Champions League a few times; they are accomplished stars. But if they don't train regularly or refuse to consider innovative ideas, they won't progress."

You use the term "accomplished" for board members. Doesn't that contradict the fact that they should be open to their new role? Ramon: "Those who consider themselves accomplished are often, in my opinion, people who are just playing the role of a director. They think, 'I'm in'.

"You use the word 'arrived' for board members. Doesn't that contradict the fact that they should be open to their new task?".

Ramon: "Those who consider themselves 'arrived' are, in my opinion, often people who play at being directors. They think: I have the power now, the rest should conform to that. And that's such a waste... because they are generally intelligent people with a vision.

But they are not sufficiently aware of the impact they have on each other. As a board, you also have opponents, outside the organization. And if they want to engage in a battle with the outside world, they need to ensure that the board is well-aligned."

At the Leadership in HR event on June 16, you will be providing a masterclass on how to forge an executive team that knows how to lead without playing games and without hidden agendas. Does that happen so often, games and hidden agendas?

"Everywhere, really. And everyone knows it. I speak to many talents who say they would like to have a top position but don't want to end up like the current leaders. The minimum that leadership should do is to be self-critical. But no one at that level receives much feedback, you know. They are often people with big egos who don't really want sincere feedback. I often say: if the top sucks, it all sucks. If nothing improves at the top, it affects the lower levels."

"The minimum that leadership should do is to be self-critical."

Ramon: "Every discussion at the executive level can be interpreted in two ways: as a hot topic or a cool topic. A hot topic evokes emotions in some members of the board but not in others – for them, it's a cool topic. In that dynamic, people start positioning themselves and they don't understand each other. I find it an interesting game because it allows me to see how I can make people experience it together and help each other. With that game, I can provide people with insight into how to handle hot topics and approach each other openly and honestly. For the greater good, the well-being of the organisation. It sounds obvious, but it's not."

So, it takes a lot of courage to work with you?

Anne: "Absolutely, we're really looking for that CEO who is courageous enough to say: wow, there's something to it... I'm willing to make a leap in growth by looking at myself again and investing in myself and my team."

"That's the crux. Does the leader see this as weakening their position? Or is it actually very strong for a leader to take such a stance? That's the threshold that many CEOs have to overcome."

"Recently, I was wondering why the boardroom invests so little in developing their own team dynamics. They do invest in sending individual leaders to get an MBA, but not in training or coaching for the executive team itself. When you propose that to board members, they are more likely to resist."

"And we really want to have conversations with those executive teams – they are not being challenged enough."

"We want to have conversations with executive teams – they are not being challenged enough."

What do you see as the ideal executive team?

Ramon: "The ideal team is very transient because you never know what the situation will be like in six months. You can only form an ideal team if you manage to connect with each other regularly to bring out the best in each other. And, in our opinion, that's done through a board boost. You see what happens when someone leaves and is replaced by someone else: what is the influence of that new person on the dynamics of the executive team?"

Is the ideal executive team constantly in motion?

Anne: "Yes. And as a leader, you need a boost for that - just like any human being. Because it's hard work! It's like playing a sport at the highest level, you hardly sleep, and you're always working. But you also need moments where you get a boost for inspiration, reflection, or insight."

"And we hope that the concept of a board boost conveys exactly that: inspiration, impact, initiative, innovation."

"At the top, it doesn't have to be all heavy; you can also make things lighter. I was talking to Ramon about how in the past, we would both have sleepless nights, for example, when a certain topic was on the agenda - especially because we knew that one colleague would start nitpicking and raising objections again. Looking back, I think we can make it much lighter. It's also a puppet show."

Final question. Not every leader is in the boardroom: does the board boost also have an impact on other teams and leaders?

Ramon: "Absolutely. Because when the board functions better, it naturally radiates to the rest of the organisation. You serve as an example. If you perform better, it's much easier for leaders at lower levels to follow suit, compared to when they see the wrong example.

Anne Jaakke
HR ChangeMaker
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