Image of hands in a circle all holding pieces of a jigsaw puzzle

Boards are Teams Too

Are boards a group of individual people bringing along a set of individual skills, or are they a team? This is a topic that is regularly debated when discussing governance. If we look at the definition of a team as ‘a group of people who perform interdependent tasks to work towards accomplishing a common mission or specific objective’, we can see that a board is no different. In order to be effective the individuals need to work together as a team in the best interests of the organisation. It’s no surprise then, that in the world of governance advice and support, a board is very much considered to be a team. This view is also supported by The Institute of Directors in New Zealand, who have identified ‘an effective governance culture’ as the second pillar of best governance practice and state that the board must ‘act as a team’ for an effective culture.

Working as a team is, however, easier said than done! Unlike many teams, usually board members don’t join the team at the same time. Often when a new member joins, they are expected to just ‘fit in’ with the current team’s processes and rituals. How one group of individuals functions, the roles they take, the times they meet, can all change with the addition, or loss, of just one person. Another challenge is that a board often only meets infrequently, so there is little opportunity to build relationships. Boards have to rely on the concept of ‘swift trust;’ because an individual is appointed to the board, they have been through a process and should therefore be trusted. But trust lost is difficult to regain.

Ultimately each member of the team needs to feel a sense of belonging in order to contribute their best. With belonging comes greater participation and performance; we are hardwired for teamwork.

An effective board team
So, what makes an effective team? Below are ten characteristics that we at Grounded believe go a long way towards an effective team, in the boardroom and beyond.

  • Common, achievable goals: This may seem obvious, but unless it is actively discussed and recorded there is no guarantee that everyone on the board is united in their understanding. Creating an Annual Work Plan that the organisation and board agree on is fundamental.
  • Good communication: Each member of the team needs to be able to communicate effectively, both within the board and with management. Good communication enables a high-quality debate, which leads to great decisions.
  • Sense of belonging: Each individual needs to feel they ‘fit in’ and are welcome. It is this sense of camaraderie that helps to drive better overall performance. The individuals feel more invested in the success of the business they’re a part of and more able to perform.
  • Individual Talents: The board members should add value to the organisation by bringing skills, behaviours and experience that help to drive overall success. Boards should have an effective process for identifying then maximising talent.
    Capable, Confident Chair: The board chair sets the tone for the board. Developing a healthy partnership with the CEO is one key aspect of the role.
  • Accountability: A board team who consistently demonstrates the highest levels of accountability and informed decision-making is an incredible foundation to build everything else in the board around. The whole board team need to demonstrate credibility and reliability. The result is often a CEO and management team who genuinely respect the board team.
  • Time together: Despite all the time pressures on a board, the directors need to make time for each other, for connection, for shared experiences.
  • Feedback: All teams need feedback to learn and grow. An informed board evaluation process that asks behavioural questions such as ‘did we add value’ and ‘did we reflect the values of the organisation’ as well as performing formal feedback through a board evaluation, will drive decision making towards optimising future success.
  • Solution-Focused Constructive Optimism: As much as we prepare strategic documents and plan for the future, there will always be curveballs. A board that is working as a team is able to adapt and remain focused on solutions. Making the time to look up as a board team and figure out strategically how the organisation is going to adapt and thrive is what makes the difference between an average board and an effective board. Constructive optimism refers to the need to be positive, but also informed and realistic.
  • Welcoming new ‘team players’: Known as the induction process, new team members need careful and caring processes to ensure they feel that sense of belonging as quickly as possible. New team members are in a highly receptive state, ready to learn. Help them do so!

Why is it important for boards to work well as a team
In today’s fast-paced world, board members give precious time and energy to their roles. Whether they are in-person or online, every minute in a board meeting counts. As a board team, each and every board member, led by the board chair, has a fundamental responsibility entrusted to them. They need to demonstrate the highest levels of accountability, ethics, integrity, respect and work-ethic, have a high-performance culture and make an outstanding contribution to the organisation. A board that exemplifies teamwork ultimately makes better decisions. Healthy boards drive the future success of the organisation.

Ensure your board is working as a team
At Grounded we believe that effective board teams don’t just happen, they are nurtured – regularly. We have developed several products to help boards to function as a team, including our board healthcheck, board culture and teamwork workshop and our chairing pathway programme. If you are unsure where to start get in touch for some down-to-earth advice and support.