The head of operations at a large PLC has finally been appointed to the board after many years at the company. He has worked hard as a manager, learning how best to report to his masters, how to keep them happy, how to impress them and, indeed, how to play their politics. He is acutely aware that it won't be easy to get his former masters to treat him as an equal. He plans to ensure that he marks his territory well, asserting his new place at his first board appearance.
The big day arrives and he launches into a well-rehearsed monologue on what he is going to do. The board questions him on his plans and challenges some of his underlying assumptions – normal fare for the boardroom, but he misinterprets their line of questioning as criticism. Believing that the appropriate solution is to show that he can 'stand up' to his new colleagues, he becomes defensive and at times aggressive. The meeting gets off on the wrong footing and his first contribution creates a largely negative impression. This display of aggressive and intractable behaviour sets the tone for the coming months. His entire transition is made much harder as a result.
So many managers I have met have made the same mistake on their first move into the boardroom. The problem is that the characteristics that ensured their success as managers now stand in their way on their transition to the board. Managers who succeed at the operational level will often have employed a 'command and control' style, using positional power to get things done. This simply does not work in the boardroom. For a PLC board director, authority comes from personal power – reputation, respect and the ability to influence others by reasoned argument.
Boardroom effectiveness flows from the power of persuasion, through the exercise of advocacy and judgement. Status counts for nothing in the boardroom. But argument and reason will have powerful results. Directors now carry onerous responsibilities and liabilities that mean a board will only commit to a course of action once a consensus has been reached about its suitability and likely consequences.
Such conviction will only be gained after a campaign of reasoned argument by each director. New appointees must learn to resist the pursuit of individual or narrow functional interests and start to think in terms of collective responsibility and objectivity.
Perfecting the transition to the board calls for new types of behaviour – reflective rather than interventionist, for example – which cannot necessarily be acquired at business school. Arguably, these new behaviours cannot be taught, only learned.
The new board director needs to investigate the issues around his own particular transition. First, coaching could be used to develop particular skills, such as advocacy – individuals usually have a very limited time to state their view and they need to learn how to marshal their arguments quickly and put them across succinctly.
Second, mentoring might help him deal with the shock of finding himself so unexpectedly out of his comfort zone. It provides the space and place for individuals to examine the behaviour they displayed at the operational level – powerful, often bruising behaviour that nevertheless 'got things done'. They can learn to recognise that different behaviour is now required, involving a willingness to probe and challenge others’ thinking, and to influence others' views through the power of reasoned argument. This is quite different from the manager's preoccupation with telling others what to do.
Few PLC boards offer any meaningful support for those making a transition into the boardroom. The irony is that nearly all are quick to point out the immediate rewards of having new directors who can make effective early contributions.