5 Clues To Your Boardroom " Pecking Order"
BY Ralph Ward
Take a group of high-achievers, put them together around a boardroom table, and give them ultimate fiduciary responsibility for a corporation, and some very interesting interpersonal stuff happens. Ronna Lichtenberg, head of Clear Peak Consultants in New York and author of the book " It' s Not Business, It' s Personal," is an expert on how personal issues shape business relationships, and she finds the boardroom a hothouse of hidden, but powerful interpersonal battles.
Every board is going to form networks and pecking orders among its members. It' s best to accept this and turn it into a strength. " Some directors will have more status than others, based on things like the size of companies they run, or how they handle themselves at the senior level," says Lichtenberg. The informal " lead director" is the most obvious sign of this ranking, and is one of the keys to an effective board. " This is most apparent in times of crisis, such as pushing the CEO out. Whoever is strong enough to act as a motivator takes the lead by default."
The board differs from many other office structures because even the most active board spends relatively little time together as a group. This doesn' t keep rankings from forming, but instead can make them weak and poorly shaped -- a single faux pas can brand a business Alpha as a boardroom loser. " Directors don' t spend much time together, so they tend to make judgments of each other quickly," says Lichtenberg. " This makes it important to give them as much face time with each other as you can." Lichtenberg notes that when boards do get together, they have opportunities for concentrated time sharing, with board dinners and long lunches.
Even though American boardrooms are among the world' s most feisty, Lichtenberg finds that an in-your-face approach will usually backfire. " At the board level, importance is placed on gracious handling of interpersonal disputes. You won't openly disagree with others around the table? things are worked out before the directors get there." While some boards no doubt get raucous at times, in most boardrooms, " a lifted eyebrow is the same as screaming elsewhere."
Another chemistry tip for the boardroom novice: " When people are new to boards, especially when they' re women or minorities, they feel insecure and tend to talk too much, and make more judgments and pronouncements. This is pretty much exactly wrong. It takes a little while to learn when to talk." [ Editor' s note -- board novices can also stay too silent too long? finding the right medium here is one way to prove your boardroom status.]
If you' re new to the boardroom, there are a few active steps you can take to build your ranking. " Fight to get on committees with real decision making power, such as audit -- something like a ' social responsibility' committee shouldn' t be your only one." Also, when working your way up in the boardroom, " try to form 2 or 3 particularly close ties on the board? get to know them personally, going for depth with a smaller group that includes the leaders of the pack."