As we look into the future, it appears that non-statutory responsibilities will be the area that will be most demanding for those working in governance. Even now, the focus is changing from a reactive to a proactive approach, and from dealing with the past to planning for the future. More than ever, boards need to make more effective, prudent and commercially savvy decisions that better protect and enhance the shareholders’ interests. In order to successfully achieve this, well-honed people skills are required such as the ability to listen and understand different shareholder perspectives, and being able to influence others especially when dealing with sensitive issues.
This article will explore these two areas in more depth by posing questions for you to reflect on. If you can answer them confidently and positively, then you’re probably well placed to achieve successful outcomes for your organisation and stakeholders. If not, then you may want to consider applying some of the tips that are suggested. At the very least, hopefully you be inspired with some new ideas for reinvigorating some of the discussions you have at work.
How well do you know your stakeholders?
The better you know how your stakeholders think, their sensitive issues, and what’s most important to them, the more you’ll be in a position to make decisions that they are satisfied with (even if they disagree). Knowing your stakeholders well is also more likely to result in less potential conflict and a smoother working relationship, in general, especially when you have to disappoint them. Having a genuine attitude of wanting to understand your shareholders goes a long way to building a mutually productive relationship. The best way to convey the message that you are interested in their views is to demonstrate that you are by doing some of the following:
Make regular times to meet up with stakeholders to have open and robust conversations. It is important to have uninterrupted time in a conducive environment if you really want to have a meaningful discussion. You may also want to frame the conversation by saying that you genuinely want to be able to put yourself in their shoes when making decisions. Try asking some of the following questions, modifying them to suit your situation and using your own language, of course:
- What is most important to you?
- From your perspective, what are your main drivers?
- In the last 3 months, what’s been your greatest achievement/challenge?
- From your point of view, what would you like the organisation to have achieved in 3/5/10 year’s time?
- If I could achieve the best outcome for you in my role, what would that look like?
- What are you most concerned about currently and how can I help?
- How can I make communication channels between you and the other stakeholders more transparent/effective?
- Who else do you think I should be having regular conversations with?
Actively inquire about the status of your relationships at regular intervals. This type of conversation is not something that many people are used to. However, most would be pleased to be asked especially if there’s an attitude of inquiry and a non-defensive manner. Consider asking:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your satisfaction with how well I’m meeting your requirements/needs as a shareholder?
- What do I need to be doing differently to close that gap?
- How would you describe our working relationship to others?
- How can I best add value to our relationship?
- What would you like me to do more of, stop or continue doing?
- Where do you see us having common ground in the way we think or approach issues?
- What do you believe I don’t appreciate about your perspective?
- What assumptions do you think I regularly make that aren’t helpful?
- From your perspective, what is the worst thing I could do?
How collaborative and facilitative is your interpersonal style?
Focus on process as well as content. In general, most business discussions focus on content (facts and data), the ‘what’ that is being decided or analysed. When conversations become heated, most people focus even more intently on the content by bringing up more facts or trying to convince the other parties via reason or logic. Focusing on ‘process’ entails paying attention to the ‘how’: people’s participation levels, emotions, hidden agendas, how decisions are being made, and many other elements that are often invisible and less tangible than numbers and facts. Being able to notice and make process interventions during discussions (whether one-to-one or in a group) is a very important contributor to effective decision-making.
Whether during a one-to-one discussion or a board meeting, a simple formula is to comment neutrally on what you observe and then pose a question to the other person or board members. For example, ‘It seems as if we’ve been going around in circles for the last twenty minutes. What’s stopping us from moving forward?’ or ‘We’ve heard from some people and I think it would be helpful to hear from everyone on this issue. What do you think about going around the table?’
Depending on the situation, you could suggest even more structured interventions to help broaden or deepen a discussion like, ‘I think we’re taking a narrow view of this issue. I’d like to suggest that we put on stakeholder x’s hat for a while and take their point of view. What do you think?’ or ‘I think we’re about to close on this decision too prematurely. Can I suggest that we all brainstorm for a few minutes and think outside the box and see what happens?’
These types of contributions to conversations can be very powerful and can change the course of a discussion quite quickly. Sometimes it takes courage to act on your instincts but, in my experience, taking the lead in this kind of way is appreciated by others and responded to with more engaging dialogue. It can also save time in the end by short-circuiting discussions that go around in circles. And, most importantly, it can ensure a more sound and prudent decision is made.
When you make these types of interventions during board meetings, you will obviously need to demonstrate to the chairman that your intentions are respectful and collaborative, and that you are not challenging his or her authority. This is another reason to build a strong relationship and potentially establish some kind of agreement or expectation in relation to your involvement at this process level.
Ask lots of questions. It’s surprising how often people jump to solutions and decisions before a situation is fully explored. The risks of not analysing an issue thoroughly include not getting to the underlying factors, making ineffective decisions, and not gaining buy-in or commitment from those affected by the decision. The best antidote to this is to ask open questions (starting with What, How, When, Tell me) and to demonstrate that you are really listening to the answers.
Take the initiative to ask questions* that are slightly different and that have potential to energise a discussion like:
- What assumptions are operating underneath this discussion?
- What is not being said that needs to be said in this debate?
- If we made a radical decision that was a successful one, what would that look like?
- How would our decision be different if we factor in how things might look in the future?
- What’s a completely different viewpoint that we haven’t heard yet?
- How can we stay within the guidelines and still remain innovative/flexible?
Acknowledge others’ perspective and emotional reactions. We often think that if we acknowledge someone’s perspective or emotion that we agree with them and therefore have essentially said ‘yes’. By acknowledging another person’s point of view and how they feel about an issue doesn’t have to mean that you agree – it simply means that you understand how it is for them from their perspective. We can also fear that if we invite others to expand on what they really feel and think, that we’ll feel pressured to change our mind. It’s important to let people express their reactions rather than try to suppress or go around issues. They don’t go away even if we’d like to think they do. When people feel their input has been taken seriously and that their viewpoint has been understood and considered, they are more likely to listen to others, contribute more constructively in discussions, and to accept a different decision to the one they wanted.
Two examples of statements that acknowledge another person’s perspective and emotions are, ‘I can see that you are very disappointed with my response because of what you said earlier about x. Where does this leave you?’ or ‘From what you’ve just said, it seems that you don’t think I’ve considered your situation and I sense that you’re angry about this. Tell me more about your concerns.’
How aware are you of your habitual ways of persuading others?
It can be helpful to track the habitual steps or approaches you take when trying to convince others of your point of view, or when you meet with a negative response or potential conflict. A senior manager, Thomas, recently complained to me about his peers and direct reports being short-sighted and not identifying the future business opportunities he could clearly see. After analysing his habitual approach to these kinds of disagreements, he described a three-step pattern of firstly trying to convince them with facts; then at a second meeting being annoyed and being more pedantic about why he thought they should listen to him. By a third meeting, Thomas was already angry from the outset and inevitably was in no position to influence or even have a two-way dialogue. These meetings usually ended in a damaged working relationship and high levels of dissatisfaction and stress for him.
Once he saw this pattern, we discussed other ways he could gain people’s agreement. He realized that he had been so intent on persuading others of what he thought was obvious, that he was ignoring their feelings and their legitimate arguments about why they didn’t think his decisions were sound. As Thomas knew that what he’d been doing to date wasn’t working, it was reasonably easy for him to try another approach. How do you habitually respond when people disagree with you? Do you try to convince even more, or do you explore their views and feelings and attempt to get to the underlying values or premises from which they’re operating? What would be an alternative influencing style?
How much support do you have access to?
Find a mentor to learn from and bounce ideas off. Many great thinkers and achievers have had mentors to learn from, use as sounding boards, and to help speed up their development. Even though this seems like an obvious idea, it’s surprising how many executives face many challenging decisions and situations essentially alone. Having the right person to confide in and to get valuable feedback from can help in many ways including better preparing you to manage difficult discussions and decisions, providing support and a forum to debrief, and having another person adding value to what you’re doing in your role.
Extend your network to maintain a helicopter view. It’s important to maintain a network of peers, as well as a mentor, to assist with information relating to non-commercially sensitive queries. A peer network can also help to maintain a helicopter view of what is happening in your organisation and the wider context. The time this takes usually pays off in many ways down the track.
My final questions to you are how engaging do you want your work conversations to be and what are you willing to do differently tomorrow? Does a personal vision of having robust and interesting discussions appeal where people are more actively involved and feel that even if their viewpoints are not always adopted, that they feel listened to, enjoyed the conversation and felt energised by it? This article attempted to highlight some ways you could make the discussions you’re involved in potentially more consultative and powerful, with the engagement and ultimate satisfaction of your shareholders.
* These questions are inspired by: Brown, J. with Isaacs, D. and the World Café Community, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2005.