Navigating tension in the boardroom

Discord in the boardroom has the potential to disrupt corporate operations on a much wider scale, but it may actually come with a positive side provided it’s managed correctly and prevented from getting out of control.

In a recent piece for the Harvard Business Review’s HBR Blog Network, Ron Ashkenas gave the example of competing executives whose personal rivalry for the CEO position eventually began to affect the employees working under them, resulting in the formation of “camps” that proved disastrous for cross-functional collaboration and discussion. C-level professionals whose interpersonal relationships are so compromised that the tension between them begins to affect the departments they head clearly need to work on reducing conflict, and preferably sooner rather than later.

That being said, the concept of an organization that is fully aligned and boasts C-suite members who all share the same values, goals and outlooks might seem utopian, but actually brings along its own fair share of problems. When it comes down to it, disagreement often drives advancement, so a company with a boardroom free of discord and competing agendas is unlikely to excel. Even the most tenured executive won’t come up with great ideas 100 percent of the time, and the rest of his or her senior management colleagues have a responsibility to challenge lackluster propositions when they see fit. If everyone has the same mindset, there’s nobody around to torpedo initiatives that should never see the light of day – and, let’s face it, every company has a few of those.

Getting creative

Additionally, there’s the concept of “creative tension” to take into consideration – also known as constructive discontent and respectful challenge, according to a June 2013 Forbes Leadership Forum piece by Punit Renjen, the chairman of the board of Deloitte LLP.

“Creative tension is constructive,” Renjen wrote. “Its purpose is to bring out the very best in management so that senior executives can generate the greatest value for shareholders, stakeholders and society at large.”

Renjen cited the example of Bill George, former chairman and chief executive of global medical device corporation Medtronic, who credited instances of lone dissenters protesting a major decision in helping the other members of the C-suite to avoid making costly mistakes, and argued that effectively leveraging creative tension is “the crucial edge that makes a board exceptional.”

This type of action can take many forms. For instance, senior management may drive progress by posing hypothetical situations, initiating debates on short-term solutions and their long-term effects, brainstorming tweaks to an organization’s vision or identifying which leadership attributes are lacking within the company infrastructure in order to inform future executive search and recruitment efforts.

Healthy debate is a hallmark of an effective board, and having a director with deep industry knowledge allows for more informed debate. Otherwise, boards tend to rely on management when it comes to decisions requiring industry-specific knowledge or risk. By including an industry-savvy director in the board room, fellow directors and management (and ultimately shareholders) will benefit from the right questions being asked about strategy and risk.

Healthy disagreement vs. unhealthy feuding

Firms should foster a culture of healthy debate not only among their executives but across all levels of the company.

“Board members can enrich their own discussions by challenging one another, including their chairman, and not just during executive sessions,” Renjen wrote.

Of course, there are times when unproductive levels of friction will erupt at all levels of a company, but this is not something to be overly concerned about unless the discord lingers – particularly in the boardroom, where the stakes are naturally higher.

“People have different personalities, biases, values, ambitions and interests, all of which affect the chemistry of their relationships, and if you throw in the pressures of the workplace, it’s hardly surprising that tensions arise between colleagues and co-workers,” Ashkenas wrote. “But when members of a senior management team don’t get along, the negative impacts can cascade through an organization. Those conflicts have the potential to reduce productivity and morale for dozens or hundreds of people.”

So, what can be done to defuse “bad” tension in the boardroom? Ashkenas presented two different approaches.

1) Talk it out

Whether the executives directly involved in the conflict are big enough to sit down and talk things out on their own or require a gentle prod from a colleague or superior, tackling the problem head-on and airing everything out is critical to improving the situation.

2) Work it out

In some situations, it’s more productive to connect over similarities than zero in on differences. With this mindset, executives who have butted heads in the past might find some common ground while working with each other to solve a company issue beyond their reach.

“When senior managers need to put on ‘bigger hats,’ it helps them to transcend the interpersonal rivalries and dislikes in order to achieve the broader objective,” Ashkenas explained.

Companies engaging in executive recruiting will want to make choices based not only on an individual candidate’s background and expertise, but also how he or she will fit into the existing boardroom dynamic.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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