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What Makes an Effective Director?

September 27, 2023

Posted in: WATSON Views

Do a quick Google search of board effectiveness and you will find plenty of great resources. But research “what makes an effective director” and you may find yourself more lost than when you started. While there is a lot written about the role and duties of directors i.e., what directors do, there is little practical guidance available about how to show up in the boardroom and have immediate impact. If you want to maximize your contribution to the role, you need to know what that looks like in practice.

We’re in boardrooms every day working with directors across provinces, sectors, and industries.  And while every organization and board is unique, there are several universal traits of effective directors we’ve observed that will serve you well in any boardroom.

Effective directors:

  • Listen and build. Governance is a team sport. Effective directors see a conversation as a group activity. They actively listen and process what was said before them and build on previous contributions, adding a unique perspective or consideration. While they prepare their contributions and questions in advance, they flex and adapt their thinking in the moment based on what was said in order to get to a better outcome together.
  • Know how to ask hard questions. Effective directors have the courage to ask tough questions, but also have the distinct ability to frame their questions in a clear and respectful way. They use framing, tone, and body language to put tough issues on the table without triggering defensiveness.
  • Put in the work. No level of intelligence, experience, or business wisdom exempts a director from putting hard work into their role. Effective directors read and consider the board materials in advance, brainstorm strategic questions and, seek out research and information to broaden their views on key strategic topics. They contribute to the board’s work at, and between meetings, and do what they say they will do.
  • Contribute broadly. While some directors bring a breadth of relevant experience and others bring deep expertise in a few areas, all effective directors engage and contribute broadly. While they may defer to more experienced directors on certain topics, they educate themselves and share their perspective on a range of topics, recognizing that they are not there as an expert advisor, but as a trusted contributor who brings a unique perspective.
  • See around corners. Directors are at the table to apply their skills, experience, and perspective to raise things others might not see. They must anticipate unintended consequences or risks, see emerging trends that might impact decisions, and envision a clear future for the organization. Effective directors do this by applying their experience to the board’s context and educating themselves on emerging trends and issues relevant to the organization and industry.
  • Embrace feedback and learning. The most effective directors value feedback and ongoing learning. They are open, self-aware, and reflective. They give and receive feedback with humility and consideration. They strive to be a better director and take an intentional approach to their learning and development.
  • Value and contribute to the board’s culture. Effective directors recognize that a board cannot have maximum impact without strong and healthy team dynamics. They engage actively to build a positive board culture and effective group dynamic. They build trusted relationships with their fellow directors and management.
  • Respect the line. Even when discussing their favourite topic, effective directors understand their oversight role and don’t dive into operations. When others approach the grey line between governance and operations, they help to refocus the board’s level of contribution.
  • Strive for continual improvement. While they celebrate successes, effective directors also push to do things better. They don’t equate the way things are done with the best way, but they also don’t push change for the sake of change. They adopt a lens of continual improvement, focused on strengthening what works well and finding high impact areas for improvement.
  • Have the courage to do what is right. It goes without saying that effective directors demonstrate high integrity and ethics. They are alert to subtle messages and signs of trouble, and are diligent in asking questions and seeking information to ensure the organization, its leaders, and the board are behaving in an ethical and responsible manner. They have the courage to speak up and call attention to important issues.

Before you head into your next board meeting, ask yourself: How are my fellow directors and I showing up for our board and organization? If you’re unsure or think your board could use some guidance, reach out. WATSON is always here to help.