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Part 1: Presenting to Your Company’s Board? What is Board Presence and How Do You Develop it?

1.15.2018
This week’s post is the first of a two-part series on board presence—that elusive quality that leads to increased credibility and influence for an executive. This week we clarify what board presence is and why it matters. Next week we’ll provide some specific tips for enhancing your own board presence.

Our guest columnist is Kathy Dockry, Managing Director of Significa Group. Kathy supports boards on CEO succession and selection, and also coaches executives on leadership and influence in the C-suite.

Does this sound familiar?

You’ve been called to present to your board. It’s a great opportunity to earn credibility as a strategic and business-savvy executive. Maybe you’re there to enlist support for a critical initiative. Or maybe you’re simply providing a status report. Either way, you want to make a favorable and compelling impression; one that leads to the board valuing your opinions and possibly even seeing you as a leader with the potential for larger roles.

Given the audience, your preparation is thorough. Your presentation is comprehensive. Your recommendations are thoughtful and perhaps even creative. At the end of day, the board is clearly satisfied with your performance.

And yet..... and yet.....

You still walk away with a vague sense that somehow it could have been better. The room seemed to lack that energy that comes when people sit up and take notice. You did a flawless job, and yet somehow you feel as if there was a missed opportunity. 

This is the realm of “board presence”; that commonly used but little understood phrase. It’s hard to get a handle on it and even harder to figure out how to develop it. Many of the logical things that we do actually are ineffective or work against us.

But never fear. Board presence really isn’t some mysterious and unachievable talent. Anyone can enhance and even master this skill with a little understanding of what is going on and by practicing a few techniques. Time spent in cultivating your board presence can pay big dividends for you in your success as a leader.

In this blog post, we’ll explore what board presence actually is and why the board wants to see it. And in a follow-up post, we’ll look at a few of the very simple and easy-to-execute techniques that reliably will enhance the power of your own board presence as well as increase your influence.

What Is “Board Presence” Anyway?

For the purpose of this post, I’m assuming that you’re already a capable executive with strong business or subject matter expertise and judgment. These are the capabilities that get you into the board room and in front on the board.

Board presence is HOW you demonstrate to the board that you have these essentials while you’re in the room with them. Put another way: 
So you can see, board presence is the secret ingredient that AMPLIFIES what you already have. The more you have excellent board presence, the more effective you will be as an executive. Your win rate will be higher, you will encounter fewer obstacles in gaining support for your initiatives, and your overall relationship with the board is more likely to be smooth and easy. 

And the converse is true. The more rudimentary your board presence, the more you will struggle to be heard and accepted as a credible leader. Your substance, judgment, and character may be good, but you haven’t done enough to reassure the board of that. You ultimately may be successful in your role without good board presence. But it will feel like you’re wading through mud—it just takes more time and more effort to get there. 

So Why Does the Board Value Board Presence in an Executive? And What Exactly Is It Looking For?

Let’s step away for a moment from our perspective as executives and consider what the world looks like from the perspective of a board member. How does the experience of being on a board feel?
  • You are part of a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive team. You and your fellow board members don’t have much opportunity to work together, and you have different experiences, skills, concerns and work styles. As a result, the interpersonal dynamics may be challenging.
  • Your job is episodic. Rather than having a continuous view, you generally have 8-10 snapshots a year. As a result, you have a narrow window through which to glimpse what is happening in the business, and you don’t always have the larger context in which to fit the various glimpses you get.
  • When you do meet with management, you generally are receiving highly filtered information. You are aware that you often don’t know what you don’t know, and you have no independent basis for changing that state. Most of the time, all you can do is simply trust that you are being told all relevant information needed to accurately assess the company’s status and make good decisions.
  • Ironically, you also can receive too much data. Management is often eager to demonstrate how knowledgeable it is on various topics. You appreciate the background and often ask a lot of questions that give the impression that you want even more data. However, all those details can get confusing (though you never admit this), and you may worry that you can’t see the forest for the trees.
  • You are increasingly more aware of the fact that the stakes are very high if the board does not get things right. The downsides include not only major hits to shareholder value, but often the long-term viability of the company. And the risks of personal liability and reputational damage have increased as well. As a result, you are hyper-sensitive to risks of all kinds.

What Every Executive Needs to Know About A Board

There are many other observations we can make about the board experience, but when we consider those above, our understanding of the board as our audience deepens. We begin to realize that:
  • Being a board member is not only a powerful and gratifying role. It’s often a deeply uneasy experience, regardless of the façade that a board may present.
  • If an executive is not skillful in defusing the board’s vague unease, the board is left wondering whether he or she is “enough,” regardless of credentials and experience. This feeling is what leads to the question of whether a particular person has board presence.
So what will dial down the board’s general unease? In other words, what attributes is the board looking for when judging board presence? 

Three Traits That Comprise Board Presence

Given the importance of this question, I’ve asked it of hundreds of board members in a wide variety of organizations. And there is clear consensus on the three traits that create excellent board presence:
Do you notice the implication of these traits?  These are the very attributes that board members like to see in themselves. This suggests that when boards talk about board presence and whether a particular executive has it, they really are talking about PARITY.

That makes perfect sense when you stop to think about it. When members of the board leave the board room and go back to the lives that occupy the majority of their time, they want to know that they have left the company in a safe pair of hands—the hands of executives who think, behave and make judgments as they would (or would like to!). If an executive comes across as well-prepared and knowledgeable but somehow “junior,” the board respects the expertise but still wonders whether that executive is sufficiently seasoned to act as a proxy for the board.

When you’re demonstrating behavior typical of a peer, board members unconsciously relax. They feel you are a good proxy and that you have their backs. And as a result, they are more willing to hear what you say, agree with your recommendations and perceive you as talented and capable.

Now that you have a good understanding of what board presence is and why the board wants to see it, it’s time to turn to the fun stuff—some simple and easy-to-execute do’s and don’ts that will enhance your own board presence. Stay tuned for my follow-up column on this important prong for your career.
 
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