The Empathetic Board

The Empathetic Board

An empathetic Board? Does that sound like an oxymoron?

As an executive coach and Consultant I have the opportunity to sit on Boards, present to Boards, be invited to Board meetings and more than anything else, listen to the experiences of many of my clients (founders and CEOs) who frequently attend Board meetings. These interactions have led me to ask myself this question – would it not be wonderful if Boards were empathetic? Will such empathy not make a difference to the executives, their performance and the business?

Am I being too idealistic and out of touch with the hard realities of corporate governance? Well blogs are really a space for asking difficult questions and for pushing the boundaries of what we think is doable. So, here I go!

In addition to the hygiene aspects of ensuring compliance and preventing any form of errors of omission and commission, I believe that Board are ultimately meant to add value, contribute to taking the business and the organisation forward and above all make each meeting a truly educative experience for the members of the management present there – the CEO and his or her team.

So, why do Boards need empathy?

Boards and Board members make their impact and difference essentially through their meetings and interactions. It is therefore fair to say that Boards are nothing but a series of interconnected powerful conversations.

If Board members are expected to use their conversation skills to challenge and encourage CEOs into higher levels of performance, the pathway to such challenge is through inspiration and empathy. To challenge successfully, they will need to show warmth and empathise first – listen, understand and confirm understanding and on that basis unearth blind spots, present new perspectives, new ways of looking at things, new points of views and so on.

Without empathy, the efforts of Board members to engage in a great conversation which includes a fair amount of challenge will be met with a lot of defensiveness and resistance.

In summary if Boards are networks of powerful conversations, empathy is an essential and necessary (but obviously not sufficient) ingredient in such conversations.

 What can inhibit empathy?

While I do not have research based evidence to argue if empathy is indeed present or not (and you might be in a better position to ask that of yourself!), I can present reasons for why it might often be missing.

In the minds of the most senior executives including the CEO, the Board is associated with a lot of power and is therefore seen as a hallowed space and accorded the highest level of importance and even reverence. In my experience, such power distance does not augur well for empathy and great conversations. The onus is on the Board to downplay the power and accentuate the relatedness.

Stereotypes about Boards and past experiences with Board members may evoke feelings of fear, anxiety and in some cases even animosity. Of course there are many Boards that inspire.The kind of emotions that are evoked will determine the propensity to change.

The physical setting for Board meetings may not at times promote empathetic presence. Most board rooms are staid, cold, heavy and formal, making the situation look grave even to the most optimistic CEO or executive. Add to this the air of formality and structure and empathetic presence becomes really hard.

Then of course comes the quality of the Board members’ presence?  Are they able to give the time that is needed for each interaction and conversation? Or are they hopping from one Board meeting to another?

Then comes their style  – do they take the time to understand the business and the executive and show their interest by asking good questions and learning  or do they want to don their executive hats and judge the Executives about what they did and what they ought to have done? Do they want to give the executive constructive feedback or just a piece of their mind? Do they seem self-assured or do they want to compete with other members to look good? Do they seem to be in a hurry to say something smart based on anecdotal evidence or would they rather listen intently?

Finally, what is the quality of the relationship between the Board members and the Board members and the executives?      Is there mutual respect, an air of genuineness, an air of openness and desire to help?

You see. There is a lot that can inhibit empathy in a Board meeting.

When I meet founders and executives who have a great Board, I can see that they are excited and motivated. They are inclined to speak the truth, show their vulnerability and see Board meetings as educative experiences.  

On the other hand, when I meet founders and executives who do not like their Board, they are so stressed at the thought of the next meeting.

To me, the plea for empathy is the journey of governance from the gross to the subtle.

I am sure there are places where this exists. What do you think?