Clever Strategies from canny chairs

It’s always refreshing to come across individuals with an ability to view challenges or situations from a different perspective and arrive at altogether inspirational outcomes!

These moments are all too rare and deserve to be celebrated so I thought I’d start the ball rolling by recalling just three examples where I think chairs have been particularly astute and their clever thinking has greatly benefitted their organisations.

Whenever my thoughts drift to adroit accomplishments in the board room, I’m reminded of the approach of one particularly skilful chair to address the issue of a little, shall we say, slovenliness, among some of his board members.

Rather than confront them ‘full-on’ – which we all know can be counter-productive – Bill (let’s call him that) chose a more novel and considerably more successful approach. He knew a few directors were seldom across the board papers and arrived at meetings ill-prepared to contribute.

So when the time came to discuss a particularly complex paper, he’d lean back in his chair and cast a benevolent eye over the room before resting his gaze on one of the directors. He’d then say, in a most engaging voice, “…now Kate, perhaps you’d like to explain to the board what management is proposing here. “

Believe me, every member of that board prepared very well from that day forth!

Similarly, I’m reminded of the story conveyed to me by City of Melbourne CEO Kathy Alexander about a board she served on and how her chair dealt with the vexing and potentially acrimonious matter of members divided on an issue. When such a situation presented itself, Peter the chair would propose that it was perhaps best to defer the matter to a future meeting.

He’d then suggest a formal debate. He’d be the adjudicator and he’d select three people on the affirmative team and another three on the negative team, always ensuring that those selected to the various teams had to research and argue positions contrary to those they actually held.

It’s incredible what can be achieved when people are forced to see an issue from both sides!

I’ll close with an example from the SME world, where owners are often the managers and the board members and it can be awfully difficult to see the wood from the trees.

The canny chair of a small company where the directors were also the managers and shareholders came up with a piece of simple brilliance. He’d get a piece of butcher’s paper, place it on the staff room wall and draw a vertical line down the middle.

He’d then headline the left column ‘Operational matters for discussion’ and the right ‘Board matters for discussion’ and encourage the managers/directors to enter any issues they had in the appropriate columns.

All entries on the left would be considered day-to-day matters and attended to at periodic management meetings. And then every six weeks, he’d take what was on the right hand side, gather the directors and head to a nearby coffee shop. Away from the office and its distractions – and with their mobile phones switched off – they’d not leave until all the points had been attended to.

I’m sure there are many other examples of chair ‘cleverness’ and I’d love to hear yours…

Kate Costello

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