How to work with the Board and be effective at the top table

How to work with the Board and be effective at the top table

Egos, politics and other factors exert an influence when trying to establish oneself with the Board. Bradley de Souza provides an insider's look and advice.

Over the years I've been fortunate enough to work with the most senior executives in an organisation. This often required me having to explain complex concepts to CEOs, senior management and other executives. Technology advances such as the Internet, Cloud computing, Mobility, etc., required careful and considered explanation. It was important to ensure that the potential of such technologies be fully understood by all those involved.

Technology has increasingly become a key enabler of the modern business and more often it is seen as a differentiator in the marketplace.

Working effectively with senior stakeholders requires careful consideration, preparation and planning. In the property world, the three things to remember when considering a property are location, location, location. A similar mind-set applies when working with the Board: Communication, communication, communication.

COMMUNICATION, Communication, communication

Communicating complex technology concepts such as Cloud computing requires a great deal of understanding. It’s as important to know the audience, especially at the individual level, as it is to know the subject matter.

Understanding a person’s background can help significantly when communicating complex technical ideas. Giving explanations using relevant analogies is a powerful way of communicating. It leverages what the listener already knows and is familiar with. This can lead to faster engagement and better understanding on the part of the listener.

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- Work to demystify

Making the complex simple should be the goal of anyone working with the Board.

Senior executives have the cognitive ability to understand complex matters but often don't have the time to work through the information in a complete enough manner. They are increasingly time poor and rely on good advice to support decision making. Therefore it is paramount to be able to translate complex technology into relevant business language. Furthermore it is important to inform without scaring or confusing people.

One new mobile network I was working on had a problem with a popular business handset. Companies began complaining of network performance and coverage, not being able to make calls or receive emails. I explained to the CEO that the phone wasn't performing well due to it being 'deaf', not able to 'hear' a signal as well as other phone models. The company couldn't blame the manufacturer of the handset, a well-established brand with a great reputation. We were forced to tune and increase network performance in order to accommodate the deficiencies of the handset in question.

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Connecting technology change with a change in organisational structure needs to be understood and driven from the top down.

- Awareness of learning styles

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It's important to understand how people prefer to be informed, their learning style.

In one group I worked with, the CEO, the COO and the CFO all had different learning styles.

The CEO liked information visually. It was important to paint a picture to help explain the issues. This could involve slides, a whiteboard, very visual analogies or a combination of everything.

The COO liked to have a conversation and preferred face to face dialogue as opposed to conversations over the phone. Supporting materials like slides were relegated to second place in favour of question and answer sessions.

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The CFO liked the facts and was very direct. There was no room for any kind of speculation in the meetings.

Working with these individuals was straightforward. Dealing with them in a group was the challenge.

It is important to accommodate all learning styles into any group dialogue and manage expectations accordingly. Mastering this approach is key to successfully engaging senior stakeholders in a group, getting commitment to proposals and building trust.

- Build trust one Board member at a time

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Building trust is essential to working with a senior stakeholder group. Building trust in any group is an exceptionally difficult task. The group dynamic is very different from the one to one, individual dynamic.

Most people behave differently in a group as opposed to a one on one situation. Egos, politics and other factors exert an influence when trying to establish oneself with the Board.

Individually people are usually less afraid to ask questions. In a group, fear of appearing ignorant or losing face, can prevent people from asking questions. This then stops them from understanding, accepting and engaging in the changes or suggestions required.

Tailoring one on one meetings and presentations to the exact needs of each Board member will then lead to building trust across the whole group.

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Once the trust is established with the Board, individually, one can then approach the Board as a whole. It should be easy to anticipate and prepare responses to questions because of the previous interactions had on a one on one basis.

Apple has been an inspiration in this area…People now expect everything to work in the same, simple and intuitive way.

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Build the case for change

Before building a case for technology change or transformation, it's critical to understand the business. Only then can technology be aligned to the products and services on offer.

To some, technology can be an unwelcome expense, especially in a business not used to being dependent on it. Not all are able to equate that technology is central to an organisation's productivity, competitiveness and success.

Working with the Board is important when technology change or transformation is required. Long term investment requires continued commitment which needs to be addressed by all. This is most important when systemic change is needed to maintain competitiveness over a longer period. More often than not, changes in technology need to be supported by organisational change, the two should go hand in hand. Connecting technology change with a change in organisational structure needs to be understood and driven from the top down. Only then does it have a good chance of succeeding and delivering the promised benefits.

A number of years ago the mobile phone company, T-Mobile UK, introduced a new set of phone plans that some analysts suggested could take 3 years for other companies to compete with. I predicted 5 years given my inside knowledge of telephone and network systems. The new plans were so successful that T-Mobile had to reduce the incentives it offered to Sales staff as it couldn't cope with the demand. Even after five years, competitors to T-Mobile we unable to offer the same flexible plans.

There are three things to remember when considering a property: Location, location, location. A similar mindset applies when working with the Board: Communication, communication, communication.

Business agility in this example is often a function of the long term choices which determine competitiveness. Core systems usually end up being the limiting factor when responding to new competitive threats. It is doubly important therefore to have considered discussions around long term investments particularly when these systems form the backbone of the business.

When building the case for change, the Board should be focused core systems, long term investments and a vision for where the business is going to be over a longer period of time. It is only then that good, informed decisions can be made.

Keep it simple

Working with the Board of any company poses unique challenges.

Experience has taught me that it is all about communication. Working with individuals and working with a group needs to be driven by simple, effective and intelligent communication.

Apple has been an inspiration in this area. The company has focused on making its products and services simple, easy to use and intuitive. As more and more customers embrace these products, expectations of technology have grown. People now expect everything to work in the same, simple and intuitive way.

By the same token, senior stakeholders are no longer prepared to be held hostage by people who confuse with jargon, acronyms, or convoluted explanations.

Bradley de Souza ( is an internationally recognised CIO/CTO who has specialised in change and transformation across industries around the world.

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