Boardroom conversation is an art form for some and a learned skill for others. By definition, a good conversation is an exchange of information, ideas, thoughts, opinions and observations.
The ideal boardroom is a place of dynamic conversation where decisions are determined as a collective based on the varied experiences and input of each director to achieve the best outcome for the organisation. It is a place where each director requires an equal voice, where egos need to be left at the door and more timid personalities need to speak up.
Experienced boards, particularly those with a long-standing team of directors, may argue they have mastered boardroom conversation. This can be a mistake as many experienced boards could always improve their communication tactics to enhance board meetings.
There are several types of conversations - download, debate and dialogue. The quicker a board can get to the dialogue, the better the conversation will be.
The first type is information "download" where the dumping of information such as a PowerPoint presentation from an executive can be useful as long as dialogue follows quickly.
The second is "debate" where a more antagonistic "me versus you" approach and this can generate conflict in a boardroom rather than unified decision-making.
A third type is having a "dialogue" which usually generates constructive collaboration - a collegiate approach.
So how can boardroom conversation be improved and what can directors do to ensure their voices are heard?
The key to good conversation is the ability to listen. Active listening can go a long way towards understanding other viewpoints and the bigger picture, optimising communication within the boardroom.
Board diversity also plays a part in generating quality conversations as the contribution from each board member is valuable as it is coming from different perspectives.
Even though conversation is so vital in our lives, there are some who struggle to find their voice or express their views. An effective chairman will be able to build an atmosphere that ensures everyone has the confidence to express views clearly and succinctly. One of the biggest challenges to good boardroom conversation is "groupthink".
Joining the conversation can also be challenging for new directors where it can take a few meetings for new members to feel comfortable in the boardroom and to pick up the history of particular issues. Directors are still responsible and accountable and need to speak up if they have concerns or questions.
With the advent of the young, technical entrepreneurs making a mark in global business practices, some boards are being joined by young members, adding to their diversity.
Speaking over the top of people, constantly taking centre stage, cutting people off and putting people down are considered bad manners in most communities and are not conducive to quality discussions.
Conversation is critical to good board decisions. Asking questions and summarising information helps facilitate understanding. Everyone on the board has a role to play and everyone can play a part in optimising the discussion.
5 ways to become a better contributor in the boardroom
Communication skills coach Dr Gary Wohlman provides 5 practical tips to help you become a more valuable contributor to the boardroom conversation.
1. Ask how you can add more value
To become a key contributor to meetings, meet the chairman, CEO and other directors and ask how you can best add value, within as well as outside the boardroom. This demonstrates a tangible interest in finding out what the needs are. Also, the front-foot approach provides the opportunity to be more clued in to individuals' agendas, points of views and puts challenges in perspective.
2. Aim to shift from didactic to dialogue
Think of the meeting more as mediation than winners and losers. Appreciate each participant will have diverse experiences and perspectives and encourage them to share opinions. Speaking up in this manner will foster greater understanding and draw out each individual's contribution.
3. Encourage open dialogue
"What I am about to share with you are my thoughts. Let's explore these ideas together and discover what we can come up with as a team, drawing on the shared intelligence and wisdom of our collective." This is more inclusive, fosters the multiplicity of brainstorming with shared co-operation and demonstrates humility. This style shifts the focus from "how can I get the board to take on my view" to "how can I create context to engage each director's full potential and inspired leadership".
4. Agreeing is the first thing to do in a conflict situation
Acknowledge the point being made in a positive way. "That was a powerful point and very insightful." Once you have given support, then ask how the issue could be better managed. "What I liked about your points was (abc). Is there a way this could possibly be done better with (xyz)?" Avoid being confrontational, instead practise being invitational.
5. Ensure you are heard
Practise empowerment exercises. Identify three key words that summarise your strengths and connect your voice, tones and gestures to these words. As you become more familiar with "being in a high-performance zone", this practice will eliminate negative self talk before speaking. If you are quietly spoken or perceived as meek, this is a useful springboard to influence.