Much like your workplace, the culture of a team environment has a great effect on your – and others’ – performance and ability to achieve goals.
As a board member, it helps for you to understand what environment you perform best in, and how you can best fit in with (or adapt to) the existing culture of the board you join. Knowing the answer to the second question before you join the board has the potential to save you a lot of frustration in the future and ensures that you can set yourself up for a successful board appointment.
Often times, it’s only once you’re on the board that you start to recognise the norms, values, and behaviours of the directors and how they are either helping or hindering the board’s performance and the ability of the organisation to achieve its strategic objectives.
Here are some questions that you can ask about the culture of the director group:
1. How would you describe the culture of the board?
This question is best asked to the board Chair during your interview. Their answer should give you some insights into the acceptable behaviours of directors, how they make decisions as a group, the importance of ethics, integrity and honesty, and what sits as a core focus of all activities and decisions (hint: it should be more about the organisation than individuals).
You will then be able to determine whether this is the type of group you would best be able to perform in.
It may be worthwhile finding a way to verify the information you are told by the Chair (or interviewer). I would suggest talking with another current board member in a separate conversation. This is not an unreasonable request and should be met with enthusiasm by the board Chair and board members.
2. How is the board culture influencing the organisational culture?
The saying “the fish rots from the head” describes how culture at a board level permeates through the organisation: whether it’s positive or negative, the tone from the top reaches far into the organisation.
This is a question I would encourage the board to regularly ask itself as a group. Do the behaviours at a board level mirror and reiterate the behaviours you want to see across all staff? Are you walking the talk?
3. Does the board culture help or hinder our strategic plan objectives?
Imagine that the organisation – with the board’s help – has set the goal of being the highest rated in its industry for customer service. Imagine then if the culture is one that accepts slow customer response times, finger-pointing, and problem-hiding behaviours.
These two realities cannot co-exist: the culture is not conducive to the business achieving its goals. This of course is a fairly simple hypothetical scenario, but imagine if it was something that could make or break the organisation (such as innovation, or workplace health and safety) that was being compromised?
4. Does our board culture make us a high-performing team?
If you manage to hide the board culture from the rest of the organisation (which won’t last very long), you won’t be able to hide it from each other. A culture that works for the board is one in which the directors as a team effectively and efficiently make complex and tough decisions as a group; act with high levels of integrity and honesty; and where the directors behave in a manner that places the organisation’s welfare above individual interests.
It’s worth keeping an eye on how the group behaviours and norms effect the performance of the group and whether they reinforce the culture that has been agreed upon by the board (hint: this means that the culture should be intentional, not just left to chance).
5. Is it time to change our culture?
If reading through the above has made you feel slightly nervous or has illuminated your mind to what could be the root cause of some issues facing the board and/or the business, it may be just the right time to ask this question.
Asking questions around group performance should form part of your regularly scheduled board performance review (you are doing one, aren’t you?). This allows any minor issues to be nipped in the bud before they evolve into significant problems. If you haven’t addressed culture in a while, any time is a good time to do so. Even if you are doing this process, it’s always worth asking the question, can we be better?
Any discussion on board culture should address the values, acceptable behaviours, environment, and outcomes you want to see from directors individually and as a group. Even if it’s a check-in and nothing changes, this question is worth asking purely for the chance to reflect.
Culture in the boardroom has broad-reaching implications. Taking a proactive approach to culture – by naming it, describing what is acceptable and unacceptable within that culture, and setting up mechanisms to reinforce the culture you want – sets the board and organisation up for success.