Voices in the boardroom – how effectively are your senior team communicating?

Kim Foster

By Kim Foster

16 Jun 2017

Voices in the boardroom – how effectively are your senior team communicating?

Think about how the executive team at your organisation has evolved. Typically, people who perform excellently in their specialism are recognised and promoted to senior positions – a director of operations or head of sales for example. Their organisational 'upbringing' has typically been through that function and they are likely to be running patterns of communication and understanding that relate more closely to their technical skills than to the range of executive roles around the table. 

Being a senior leader brings reward and responsibility, particularly as part of an executive team that runs the whole business. This requires collaboration with fellow executives from a broad range of backgrounds and disciplines. As such, effective communication and influence is vital.

This article looks at some typical scenarios we encounter with communication in the boardroom and provides practical tips to improve team communication and influencing skills. 

Common problems with communication in the boardroom

1. Low levels of innovation due to an absence of questions

We often observe boards operating using what we call the 'decided' voices – advocating a certain course of action, advising or challenging colleagues from their experience or bringing the team back to certain boundaries or limits. These styles of communication are important in expressing experience and knowledge, however this is often at the expense of doing things differently and innovating.

"When it comes to the boardroom, success is often reached by disruptive innovation and that's hard to achieve. In my experience, it's first about understanding the knowledge and beliefs of your peers and then clearly and constructively challenging them when you need to."Chris Levy, experienced senior executive

Without someone asking: 'what is the outcome we want here?', 'what's really important about this?' or 'what's a better way of doing this?' a board can get stuck on the 'ways in which we've all done this before', with each opinion conflicting and not delivering any opportunity for new thinking and solutions.

Chris Levy is an experienced senior executive and formerly director of marketing and commercial operations at the CBI. "When it comes to the boardroom, success is often reached by disruptive innovation and that's hard to achieve. In my experience, it's first about understanding the knowledge and beliefs of your peers and then clearly and constructively challenging them when you need to. When it comes to delivery, initial engagement is a necessity as with any organisational change, it's never just one person's show."

2. Lack of commitment due to low levels of articulation

When you articulate where the discussion has got to, what's gone on or what's being planned, you demonstrate your situational awareness. It shows you have heard other peoples perspectives. Repeating them summarises the discussion and checks that everyone has the same understanding.

We observed one UK board that didn't articulate well. Whilst this didn't cause significant problems internally, they recognised it was a huge issue with their US parent company. Discussions would happen in parent company meetings and decisions were made, however no one was articulating these to summarise and check that everyone was truly on the same page.

"Notice when you get very different voices around the boardroom table. Some people will be urging decisiveness and action, while others will want to do more exploration and thinking. You can help the situation by sitting in the middle and be the one who does something different."Alan Robertson, co-founder of VoicePrint

As a result, the UK board felt that the parent company board members would then go off and 'do what they wanted to' and not what the UK had heard being agreed in the room. This meant they felt a lack of commitment and collaboration from their US colleagues.

Alan Robertson is the co-founder of VoicePrint and an expert in the field of talk in the workplace. He comments: "With any team, as situations become pressurised, articulation disappears early - it is one of the first casualties. This isn't entirely surprising as it's a voice that requires patience. But it disappears at the point that it's most useful - when a team need to slow down, collect their thoughts and be clear."

So how do you know when to articulate in the boardroom? Alan's advice is simple. "Notice when you get very different voices around the boardroom table. Some people will be urging decisiveness and action, while others will want to do more exploration and thinking. You can help the situation by sitting in the middle and be the one who does something different. You could ask: 'can I just clarify where we are?' and then articulate the answers you get to everyone in the room. Then enquire: 'what have we agreed and what haven't we agreed to do?' making sure that everyone is clear on what the team has committed to do."

3. Conflict and a lack of trust as a result of unhealthy levels of challenge

Challenge at an executive level can and should be welcomed. However, there is a risk that a challenge, particularly in front of senior peers and the CEO may feel like an attack. If the team hasn't truly established trust, this can undermine their efforts and decisions.

Raising a challenge in the boardroom without context can be a risky behaviour. It is important to 'show your working' by articulating how you've reached your position. Otherwise the boardroom narrative will become an exchange of strong opinions. Challenge is usually better received when its intent is to improve the quality of decisions. It is about wanting to find the best course of action rather than 'having a go'.

Practical tips for executive teams to improve their communication and influencing skills

1. Observe your executive team in board meetings

Why not have someone external to the team, such as a senior HR leader or coach, come to a board meeting and share their observations of the patterns of communication in the team? This will reveal issues that boards may or may not be aware of, but haven't been raised or tackled because of the team culture. In turn this raises the executive team's awareness of their typical communication patterns and understanding the implications of them - good and bad. Better performance is achieved through encouraging those with strengths using certain voices to contribute at the best time while also integrating new approaches.

Articulate is a good example. Someone can be 'appointed' to summarise and ensure all perspective are heard. Alternatively, the team can agree on some good open questions that must be answered on new topics, especially those of a strategic nature, before launching into opinion. Or how about setting an agenda based around questions, ensuring all conversation start by answering a powerful and well thought out question?

2. Give board members the skills to 'coach' rather than 'tell'

In our experience, having the ability to ask the right questions, particularly to senior peers who have specific expertise in a certain area, is a critical ingredient for executive team members. Advice is often uncovered through asking great questions and really listening – especially with team members who are more reflective or introverted and need to be encouraged to share opinion in the moment.

3. Use communication tools to measure competency and develop teams

Connor uses VoicePrint, a unique profiling tool that surfaces the characteristic and usually unconscious patterns in how you use talk.

It provides a new, immediate and practical means of raising self-awareness and developing personal and inter-personal effectiveness. The tool also lets you know how you are heard by others, so you get to see the impact your communication style is having. This is crucial when you are working in senior executive teams.

Because our voice is unique and personal, there are a range of developmental needs that follow a VoicePrint assessment: 

Work with individuals

  • working with a direct and challenging senior executive to help them understand the views of others and hence build trust through inquiring more readily
  • working with a leader to improve their management of performance by encouraging them to be more directing around acceptable delivery and behaviour
  • helping a highly intellectual leader who does all their questioning, thinking and evaluating in their heads, to 'show their workings' so that colleagues can more readily buy-in.

Work with teams

Connor has qualified team coaches who work to build highly performing executive teams. We use a combination of psychological education, observation, feedback, challenge and support to develop and change behaviour.

Work with organisations

The Connor INSPIRED Performance programme builds on VoicePrint and is a simple, yet effective way of getting right to the heart of individual, team and business performance. The programme is an experience-led set of modules, tackling different and distinct aspects of improving performance relating to people's ability to think, feel, act as leading-edge leaders. 

If you are interested in finding out more please speak to Kate Keaney, head of HR services and talent & organisation development at Connor.

Kim Foster

Contact Kim Foster

Talent & organisation development practice manager

Kim Foster