The Multiplier Effect of the Board’s Own Culture

  • Observations

The AICD and AFR BOSS Roundtable in late April saw Karen Moses FAICD sum up the Board’s pandemic conundrum vividly;

“The challenge we’ve got around remote working is: how do boards stay connected to culture and how the organisation is faring? We can’t do site visits. We can’t do corridor talks, all those things that would typically give you a line of sight into the pulse of the organisation. That is a puzzle for us to walk through.”

Our conversations with directors and executives over recent weeks have suggested this naturally translates into higher anxiety amongst Board members, concerned that they can execute their obligations while supporting their businesses, often translating into more frequent meetings, more questions of the executive and in some situations, board cohesiveness being challenged by remote working.

Pre-pandemic, our work with Boards and Exec teams so frequently confirmed that intellectually at least, it was understood that,

“Responsibility for defining the right culture for the company and embedding it within daily operations falls to management, but the board must oversee and hold management to account on how it is defining, aligning (to purpose and strategy), embodying and reporting on culture.”

EY Five ways to enhance board oversight of culture 2019

In other words, nose in hands off!

However, less well understood in our experience is that the culture of the Board itself impacts (positively and negatively) not only the culture of the organisation, but often the very way it orientates its operations, its ways of working and even executional focus.

Boards with the strongest self-identified culture also behaved differently from those with weak cultures. Boards with strong cultures were twice as likely to feel confident that their company’s culture reflected that desired by the board.

Also, strong-culture boards were more than three times likely to discuss corporate culture at their board meeting than weak-culture boards.

Strong-culture boards were also likely to have participated in self-evaluation exercises for directors, and were broadly engaged in all aspects of board responsibilities, suggesting their directors were more engaged in their role.

AICD summary of the Russell Reynolds 2019 Global Board Culture and Director Behaviors Survey

We discussed in a recent article the criticality of getting a read on the organisational culture ahead of the complex and ambiguous navigation into the “next normal”. We contend that annual, longitudinal Culture and Engagement surveys are expensive, of limited meaningfulness and usually out of date when published…..and usually they don’t measure the most important dimensions. 

We also propose that an “all-of-organisation” measure should mean exactly that; the organisation, its Board, key suppliers/contractors and there’s often a case for including key clients.

At CulturAlchemy, we have teamed up with Teamgage and use their excellent near-realtime pulse measurement technology both for our own organisation and with our clients. In our own monthly measure of how the development of our culture is going, we include our Board of Advice, our key marketing agency folks and our accounting partner team.

Richard Wortley, Enterpise Lead at Teamgage reports that it’s unusual for a Board to be included as respondents in organisational measures even when the Board are mandating executive attention to culture, and rarer still for Boards to measure their own culture, which has such an influential bearing of the organisation’s culture, where visibility and adaptability have become even more critical to team and business enablement in the current climate.

A Executive in the energy sector who recently joined a prominent board, told us how keenly she is moderating her interactions with the Executive of the organisations knowing from the Executive perspective, the downstream angst and workload comments and questions from the board can create. She observed that the questions the Boards should always avoid are those posed to simply prove they had read a paper!

So, our questions for Boards are;

  • How does your Board’s culture influence the culture and operational effectiveness of your organisation, pre-pandemic and now?
  • How aligned to the organisational culture is the Board’s culture?
  • What propels and impedes the relationship between the Board and the Executive and how do you amplify that that propels and diminish the impediments?
  • How might you resolve any/all of these questions and what shifts will need to be made to best support leaders of the organisation in coming months of ambiguity given the context of your organisation?

Karen Moses again, “informal access to sites and connection with staff helps to validate a perception of the health of an organisation” but a national bank recently introduced a tiered return to the workplace enabling 33% of the workforce to enter for a week on a three week rotation. Only 30% of the staff invited have actually attended most preferring to work from home. Consequently, getting a read on the “zeitgeist” of your organisation may get harder still.

If any of these questions and insights trigger further questions, we’d love to have a conversation and any opportunity to fulfil our promise….