Who’s Doing the Talking in Your Board Meeting?
Here comes the new “talking” audit.
It’s not unusual for the CEO to do the most talking in board meetings. But it’s critical to get the right balance of voices and to have input from everyone in the group. Paying attention to this balance and making some intentional changes can move the board and the organization towards greater strategic focus.
By Kevin Smith
Let’s do another poll and see what comes from the question, “Who’s doing the talking in your board meeting?” See below. You have to take the poll before you read on. Ok? Pinky-swear? And be honest. There are only three questions.
Okay, now that you’ve taken the poll, I’m willing to bet that it’s the CEO who does the most talking in most board meetings. It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? Let’s examine that more closely. Why is the CEO doing all of the gabbing? There are reports to give, detailing updates to projects, updating the numbers from last month, last quarter, last year. This is the person that the board entrusts with the operations of the credit union and the execution of the strategic plan. So, the CEO has the most to say. And if the board has questions, generally they go to the CEO (or a delegate thereof).
If you take this as “matter of fact”, then you’re probably asking yourself why I’m bringing this up. High performing boards and organizations spend their most precious limited resource – time – on strategic stuff, on strategic discussion. That’s not effective if there’s one (or two) voices that take up the largest chunk of the speaking opportunity.
The Common Scenario(s) That We See
What I gather all too often is that the CEO spends an extraordinary amount of time preparing for board meetings (another topic to dive into), where they are mostly reporting out about status and updates. Don’t get me wrong. This is work that needs to get done. But too often directors view the board meeting as simply a place for those reports and updates. Updates can be handled in other ways. Focus on the strategic, the future oriented and the discussion.
So, if you didn’t say that the CEO talks the most, then the next guess is the chair, or perhaps one misguided director who can’t help but talk constantly. At TEAM Resources, we look for those poignant board chairs who ask the right questions, quickly, and then spend more of their time listening and drawing everyone out. And for that one offender with verbal-diarrhea – it’s up to everyone to let them know when to shut-up … respectfully. (We’ve all seen it one time or another, but too few of us will speak up to make it stop. Some of you have heard me railing on the problems of “Midwest Nice” lately and know what I mean.)
How To Deal With This
There are a lot of ways to get after this problem. (Yes. It’s a problem.) The first thing to do is take an audit of who’s doing the speaking and for how much of the time. You could do this secretly, I suppose. That way no one would modify their behavior knowing what’s going on. But that feels a bit sneaky and sly.
Next, you address any processes that are in place that reinforce the static unbalance of voices. This is all of the “this is how we’ve always done it” features that may not be obvious until you dig in and look carefully. This may be as simple as how the board agenda is structured to give all of the air time to the CEO.
Now, you talk about this as an issue. Give it air time and acknowledge that it’s going on and suggest that it could change for the better. This can be the chair, or any director, or the CEO. Anyone who notices. It may take a bit of gumption to bring it up.
When everyone agrees that this could be more balanced, you decide how it’s going to be addressed. Keep in mind that not everyone who is typically quiet is going to speak right up. It may take time to work up to this. Remember that introverts do NOT like to be put on the spot. They like to have time to think things through and craft a response. So issues may need to be teed up before the meeting for people to prepare. (Do you know who on the board are introverts, ambiverts, or extraverts? Or do you just presume? You might be surprised.)
The Elephant in the Room
Now, I might get some blowback on this, but here goes nothin’. I’ve seen some, and heard about plenty of CEOs who intentionally take up all of the oxygen in a board meeting. The goal is to stall, deflect, divert, obfuscate, all in order to keep directors away from hard questions, or things going awry. It’s a well-known tactic. By monopolizing the time, they can control, well, pretty much everything. I didn’t say this was ALL CEOs, nor is it even a LOT. But if I’m here to educate, then I have to relay the red flags so you know what to watch out for.
Shake Up the Status Quo
Now – all of those CEO updates and reports: Consider how those might get handled in a different way. They could be written, or recorded. And for cripe’s sake, if they’re written out, don’t make the CEO go over them again at the board meeting! Set the expectation that everyone will do the necessary preparations and come with thoughtful questions. [Please don’t mistake this as an effort to shut down the CEO and shut them up. This is about the balance of voices.]
These steps help you to influence the culture of the boardroom, to move out of the status quo, to move towards the strategic. Directors have a job to do that is more than just oversight; it’s about setting strategy and having good discussion. That can only happen with a multitude of voices. Are you willing to take a closer look at who’s talking in the board room (and for how long)?
What am I missing on this? What do you want to argue about? What’s your “yeah, but …”? I wanna hear. I wanna discuss.