Skip to main content
Jun 03, 2014

Helping directors think differently

Businesses are expected to become more global and transparent in the coming years and decades. The board's flexibility and adaptability could be key to successfully managing these changes.

Let’s assume for a minute that all activist shareholders your company may encounter have good intentions and a long-term commitment to the overall health and development of your company (and their investment in it). That may require a bigger dose of suspension of disbelief than can usually be achieved before happy hour, but bear with me. Even if directors could have this assurance regarding dissidents who have won seats on the board, would they be able to truly listen to and seriously consider new perspectives on risks their company faces and opportunities beyond those risks, to take two examples? What stands in the way of such openness?

The National Association of Corporate Directors appears committed to getting its members to face up to their own mental and emotional roadblocks that keep them chained to old ways of doing and seeing things. At its annual spring forum, held in Washington, DC last Friday, three keynote speakers, in sessions spread throughout the day, offered some provocative perspectives on transparency, which boards increasingly need to keep in mind as they grapple with their oversight responsibilities.

After providing some sci-fi scenarios for coming transformations straight out of Philip K Dick and Ursula Le Guin, Edie Weiner, director on the US Comptroller General’s advisory board and a futurist, asked the roughly 150 attendees whether ‘the board, as currently constituted, is able to deal with this new, global and transparent world?’

Weiner pressed the need to voice concerns about business as usual, but warned that ‘the more we do that, the more we become annoying as directors.’ Faced with the quandary of daring to express a different perspective versus fear of losing their coveted board spot, directors should recognize ‘there are truly no independent board members,’ Weiner said.

Citing the results of a 2013 Spencer Stuart survey of directors, Weiner listed the percentages of respondents who say they want more minority representation, gender diversity, retired CEOs or COOs or risk expertise on the board.

‘They want silos of skills you can create advisory boards around and skills you can hire,’ she said. ‘Not one says he or she wants someone excellent in contextual, interdisciplinary change thinking. Not one says he or she wants skills that will be needed in the future as opposed to current needs.’

Weiner offered a few practical tips to help loosen directors’ synaptic connections to enable new ways of thinking about challenges. First, she recommended subscribing to and regularly reading at least two publications you would never be interested in (think WWE Magazine, put out by the World Wrestling Federation). ‘It’s about brain plasticity, not the content,’ said Weiner. ‘Be open to the signals coming to you.’

Next, she suggested hiring interns and having them shadow you, asking them at the end of each day ‘What did I do that you didn’t understand?’ and ‘What would you do differently?’ ‘Use them for their fresh eyes to expand your capacity to think differently,’ she added.

Directors should stay current with popular music, which also supports brain plasticity (and will become less distasteful the more you listen to it). Finally, she recommended directors find a mentor – ‘someone 15 years old, not in your family, the type of person you’d pay to mow your lawn or babysit, and pay him or her $5 to $10 an hour to teach you a few hours a week anything he or she wants to teach you.’

Maybe after a few lessons on Goth culture trends or body piercing, directors will be able to turn a kinder eye on dissidents in the boardroom.