Proactive Questions every board member should be asking

Dr Andrew White from SAID Business School in Oxford

Boards only see what they’re presented with and can easily become passive recipients of agendas created by CEOs and senior executives. But board members can play a transformational role in a company by asking questions that create space for reflection and strategic change, not simply responding to what they are presented with.

In this podcast, Dr Sabine Dembkowski discusses proactive questions that can enable change for both individual members and for overall board performance with Dr Andrew White from SAID Business School in Oxford.

Dr Andrew White is director of the advanced management and leadership programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and focuses his research on how to lead businesses successfully, and the risks and opportunities facing CEOs. He has a research-based podcast series and LinkedIn Newsletter, Leadership2050. He works with 80 company leaders annually, on delivering sustainable high performance. He recently jointly published an article in the Harvard Business Review with Tazim Essani and Eric Wilkinson, 2 active board members.

Some of the key takeaways of the conversation include:

“We need to shift being reactive to being proactive when it comes to setting the agenda”

Andrew argues that in order to improve board effectiveness, boards need to do more than react to regulators or the agendas presented to them. There is a need to move away from the transactional, toward pausing and looking at how to shape the overall agenda, both in terms of the activities of the board and the company as a whole.

“What is the executive not telling you that you need to know?”

Andrew points out the risks when boards rely only on executives, and how this can be a factor when it comes to problems such as cases of fraud or even companies ‘going under’. He cites how charity sectors often need to address issues with fraud, and how this needs to be addressed and the indicators to look out for. Senior board members need to be aware of what could potentially happen.

“There is a tyranny of meetings which are necessary but they’re not sufficient”

To address the really difficult questions, Andrew describes how boards can bring people together for casual conversations, so that it isn’t purely about arranging meetings – it is also learning about the company and the culture around it. Board effectiveness is not about formal meetings, or even a structured and planned walk around an office. It is also not about undercutting the role of an executive, but about boards educating themselves.

Andrew also makes clear that board performance is not about changing things very quickly, but having some time (around 15 minutes to half an hour) to address key questions. He also suggests using anonymous feedback as a method to bring up issues, and how company secretaries can help shape this agenda.

“We’re focusing on the transactional, going from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting. We have to stop and take an intentional pause…”

In an increasingly virtual world, Andrew points out that while virtual meetings can be more convenient, it does make it harder to create an informal atmosphere – which is another issue that needs to be looked at.

The three top takeaways from our conversation are:

  1. Be proactive not reactive. Look at your agendas, trying to see what’s missing or could be expanded on.
  2. Do you understand enough about the decisions you are trying to make? Do you need to educate yourself?
  3. What don’t you know about the company that you need to know about?

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