5 things strong teams and functional board of directors have in common

6 min read
Mar 20, 2024 11:54:53 AM

Have you ever compared your board of directors to a strong, functional team?

Recently, I heard an interview with a successful sporting coach talking about his team and their lack of reliance on key players. He highlighted the point that it’s great to have ‘star players’; however, they have their share of injuries and off-field challenges from time to time. His method is to have a stable of ‘up and comers’ ready to step up to the plate at short notice, and if a high-profile player is sent off, injured or unavailable, the potential rising stars would hear those golden words, “step up, show us what you’ve got”.

I smiled when I heard this conversation as we might not use the same words in a board meeting, however, the message is the same. When new board members join a board or take their first step as a board member joining their first board, “step up, and show us what you’ve got” is the message they may silently receive.

What are the similarities between a strong, functional team and a healthy board?

If we describe a team as a group of people who come together and work towards a common goal, would you agree that in simplistic terms that is what a board does?

The AICD Board of Directors definition is:

The Board is responsible for the overall governance, management and strategic direction of the organisation and for delivering accountable corporate performance in accordance with the organisation’s goals and objectives.

And according to www.indeed.com:

A team player is a person who actively contributes to his/her group in order to complete allocated tasks, meet the goals and / or manage. Team players actively listen to their co-workers, respect ideas and aim to improve the product or process at hand.

Hold on, that sounds like our Board of Directors duties, yet are we operating as a functional team? Are we loathe to admit that we have one or more toxic non-team players whose words negatively impact the work of others?

Recently I was invited into an organisation in my consulting capacity to research a number of challenges that were apparent in the organisation. I was given the opportunity to base myself in the head office for a couple of days to conveniently allow access to key players for interviews. Being an open plan office, I was shown to a corner desk and was pretty much left to my own devices and felt quite invisible whilst waiting for the various managers to make themselves available for a scheduled interview, which was then conducted in a separate meeting room. I filled my in between interview time researching recent annual reports, the organisation itself, their website, key players, and strategic plan, etc.

Would you believe I learned more about what was causing some of the challenges from the overheard idle chit chat amongst the staff, than I did from the management interviews? The team was definitely toxic and fractured, morale was low and interestingly the two names (we’ll call Frank and Elise) were mentioned multiple times as the unaccountable managers.

It was obvious to me that the problems were deeper than my briefing with the CEO had indicated. And to reinforce my theory Frank and Elise were ‘far too busy to come to a silly interview with a consultant.’ Of course they were. Day two in the open plan office, and asking some key questions from the other managers, reinforced my theory about Frank and Elise and rather than waste the CEO’s money and my time, I arranged a meeting with him that afternoon. I had prepared a short one page summary of the problem as I saw it and suggested to the CEO that he didn’t need my expertise. In my opinion, what he actually needed was some leadership coaching to manage these two individuals out of the organisation, hold them accountable for their actions and give the current employees and managers a remote chance of becoming a strong healthy team under different managers and even consider promoting replacement senior managers from within.

Eventually the CEO admitted he did think that Frank and Elise were the problem, but he just wasn’t sure how best to manage it. His strategy, ‘If I ignore them, eventually it will right itself’. This as you know is not leadership.

Does this sound familiar on your board of directors? Do you have a Frank and/or an Elise on your board? Is there a very vocal board director who takes over from the chair in voicing their opinion and encouraging groupthink, in line with their views? Thankfully, there are other seasoned board professionals outside your current board, who can give you advice on how to manage these situations and courses that you can do to learn the art of shutting down the antagonist.

However, what are we actually aiming for in creating a board of directors similar to a high-performing sports team?

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What will our healthy, functional board look like?

1. Open communication

Every board director has a voice and is encouraged to express their opinion. We actively listen to conversations and opinions expressed within the board. We may not always agree with each other’s opinions. However, our decisions will always be based on the answer to the question, “In this current matter, what action will be best for the organisation?”.

2. Shared purpose

We are clear as a Board of Directors what our roles are and importantly what our purpose is.

3. Collaboration

We are a team, we are only as strong as our weakest link. As the sports coach said in the interview, “Step up, show us what you’ve got.” And whether this is the first board you have joined, or your tenth board, we know that you have skills and knowledge to share with us, and we value your contribution. As we progress building our bridge of trust with you our new board member/s, from initially being a stranger to an acquaintance as we get to know you as a board member, long term we aim for a genuine friendship to grow amongst us. This won’t mean that we expect to spend time with you every weekend, however, what it does mean is that we trust each other and that bond of trust is strong within our board. As we collaborate, we grow together as a strong, healthy board of directors.

4. Accountability and commitment 

Unequal work loads with sub-committees need to be called out, all board directors need to be held accountable for their actions. If your situation and time availability changes significantly and you cannot honour your commitment to attending board meetings, complete the required reading of board papers prior to the meeting and/or action specific activities after the board meeting, then it may be time to consider stepping down from the board. Yes it will inconvenience others, however, long term a board of directors would rather be inconvenienced short term than frustrated by your lack of accountability.

5. Avoid Tyranny of the Minority
According to James Kierstead, the Tyranny of the Minority is a system in which a particularly extreme and motivated fraction of the populace can wield outsized power in the face of a majority which is either too indifferent or too scared to oppose it. When we apply this definition to a board of directors, we potentially have other ideas different from the ‘loud voice’, being ignored or overridden. This can also show up as indifference to the person speaking and side whispers happening throughout the meeting. Yes, it is the chair’s place to address this, however, this does not always happen. Unfortunately, when this happens, you have zero chance of creating and building a healthy team spirit.


Which of the five areas does your board need to work on? Might you consider sharing this article at your next board meeting and ask each board member to rate your board out of 5. A score of 1 might indicate epic fail, a 3 might indicate we need a bit of work and 5 – we’ve got this. Then, collate the scores and work out the average score for each point. Good luck with this exercise.


Never follow a leader who is more in love with power than people.
Native American Proverb


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