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Opinion: Stop…Look…Listen - the green cross code for board members

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Opinion: Stop…Look…Listen - the green cross code for board members

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

Opinion: StopLookListen- the green cross code for board members Opinion: StopLookListen- the green cross code for board members

Image: Housing via Shutterstock

Jenny Brown, head of housing at Grant Thornton UK LLP, discusses how boards can set the tone from the top with teamwork and an effective thinking environment.

Picture this scene - the board meeting starts late because of traffic problems. Members arrive at the end of the day, flustered and unenthused. Conscious of time, the complex issues are rushed through so that everyone can depart at a sensible hour, and those with other commitments start to drift off as the meeting overruns and the last item, a review of financing arrangements, is merely nodded through. Familiar? I think all of us have experienced elements of this in our roles on boards and committees.

One of the biggest challenges facing boards in the housing sector is trying to create an effective ‘thinking’ environment that actively encourages insightful, thought-provoking conversation resulting in sound decision making and the right behaviours across the organisation. This was very much at the forefront of our minds when we published ‘Steering the way to excellence in governance’, our first annual housing governance review, analysing underlying governance practices and disclosures of the top 60 housing associations in England. From our work on this review and insights from the sector, we have highlighted the key areas where housing associations can focus in 2014 and beyond to foster a positive, collaborative thinking environment for the board.

Working effectively together

Too often it seems that the calibre of talent becomes more of a focus than how members of the board work together. What happens if you have brilliant marketing, finance and legal experts but they all are so used to being the expert that they lecture rather than ask questions? What happens if the chair is great as a board member, asking insightful questions, but doesn’t have the capability to influence and corral others around an important decision? Boards need to carefully consider the type of leadership framework they are keen to promote and how this is communicated across the organisation. This is crucial as it could set the tone for several years to come.

Developing effective teamworking

As with any organisation, there needs to be a strong sense of teamwork on the board. An open team where there is a high degree of trust between members will help create the right culture to drive forward the types of conversations and decisions needed to achieve the goals of the organisation. Boards should consider the mix of skillsets members hold and review their investment in development, particular around the critical interpersonal skills required to work together under pressure. There is a need to focus on fostering a heightened level of understanding and mutual respect. 

The make-up of the board

Disagreement between board members can be healthy if it encourages effective and innovative discussion and challenge. Many organisations are beginning to invest heavily in culture and development for executives and the broader organisation. While this is a fantastic step in the right direction, it is only effective if it starts at board level, so that the right tone can be set from the top. Personality and style can have a huge effect on the nature of the board, and when thinking about succession plans for members it will be important to consider those who have the interpersonal skills and capabilities to bring cohesion across a number of stakeholders.

Focusing on the bigger picture

Proactivity and forward thinking is often hampered by sweating the small details. Terms of reference and governance frameworks provide boards and committees with a clear structure to help them deliver better organisational performance. These frameworks set the standard and should be considered a fundamental part of an effective board. The board itself should not need to spend time commenting on practicalities as it can serve as a major distraction, and in turn could hamper an effective decision making environment.

By focusing on teamwork, the makeup of the board and working effectively together, the appropriate positive thinking environment will be developed and a very different opening scene will ensue.  The chair starts by allowing everyone to catch their breath and agreeing a re-prioritised agenda so everyone has time to engage with the meeting in hand. Key issues are drawn out early whilst energy is high. The meeting overruns slightly, but with everyone having had the opportunity to debate and challenge the areas of risk and concern, it has served as a far more effective use of everybody’s time and creates an environment of robust decision making.

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