[Life Back West] Leadership & Boards of Directors: Proof of the Pudding is in the Performance

The best adage I know for good cooking is captured in the phrase “Proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

For teams, the perfect saying might as well be “Proof of the team is in the performance.” And while we’ll hear a lot about good and bad teams over the next couple of months – from the Super Bowl, to the Winter Olympics, to the US men’s and women’s collegiate basketball tournament known as “March Madness” – the fact of the matter is that the best teams are teams that perform well when called on.

Corporate governance – spearheaded by boards of directors / boards of trustees and an organization’s senior leadership team – should be held to the same standard. Good boards and good leadership teams are those that perform well when necessary.

I can vouch for it: I just finished my second term and rolled off a board that performed really well. The lessons from that board apply to any number and types of other boards and leadership teams that I’ve seen from over 30 years working in senior corporate settings.

While we don’t automatically think of boards of directors and trustees as “teams,” we should: their role is to leverage their aggregated individual skills as a group to reach an optimum direction and outcome for a company or organization. Team experts Douglas Smith and J.R. Katzenbach, authors of The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performing Organization, define a team this way:

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

And while we hear much about boards performing poorly – and not teaming effectively – there is little excuse for that type of performance. A little discipline, a little diligence, and some applied persistence and commitment can make most teams perform well.

Leadership boards –  like management leadership teams – run through the predictable cycles of “Form, storm, norm, and perform” theorized by Bruce Tuckman and stage theory just like any other type of team. What makes the difference in board teams that perform? They pay attention and time to the team process.

Here are some examples from the board referenced above:

  • Board members are vetted not simply for domain/ technical or financial smarts and resources, but how well they are able to work with other people in a leadership setting. While board members in other places can sometimes be characterized by “drive by” directors – members who drop in, disrupt things, and drive away – good boards avoid signing those type of people on to their board. You don’t need kumbaya but you do need board members who can park their ego at the front door and work well together.
  • You tell tell in part if you have a team if they exhibit teaming behaviors: early stage teams tend to be bumpy. In fact it’s probably a good thing that bumps happen early rather than totally smooth sailing. You’d like a board of directors to get the kinks out of effective working together early on with something minor so they’re ready to perform when the big stuff happens. In the case of the board team I mentioned, choppiness happened in the early part of the board year as some people thought the board was taking too long, others thought too little, time to make decisions. The early choppiness signaled to me that the board would like be ready for good performance later when needed.
  • Board members are “normalized.” There is work on the vetting and ongoing maintenance side to how this board works. Like the old Paul Masson slogan – “We sell no wine before its time” – effective teams are those that work on how the group should and does operate. In the case of the example board, how things work is something that’s discussed when meeting and vetting board candidates, it’s discussed in board meetings, and it’s referenced in committee and sidebar meetings.
  • Performance is characterized by reaching a timely decision that works for the board. While consensus is not required, it’s preferred. Norms in the group encourage people to ask questions, support others with comments, and to surface relevant information so that the best possible decisions get made. Unlike some boards – where the rule seems to be to behave like the stereotyped alpha male, even if you’re female – this board works as briskly as possible to get relevant points of view and data out on the table where it can be properly considered.

There are certainly other things that made the board perform: clear goals, well-run meetings, good board chairs, materials vetted before board meetings, high levels of commitment, etc.

But a large part of the success was due  to work and maintenance regarding the workings of the board and team itself. The result?  A board that worked well, performed well, and by the way, enjoyed working together.

The proof – as they say – is in the performance.

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