Boardroom Imperative: The Search for More Board Leaders

‘Tis the season for public companies to approach prospective director candidates about joining their boards at next year’s annual meetings. Over the past several years, companies have done a good job at identifying what board member capabilities they need to address the challenges they foresee ahead. The constructive tension and pressure from stakeholder capitalism has made sure boards prioritize diversifying their composition and expertise. But like sports teams that try to build a team around a collection of star talent, boards are only as strong as their culture.

From our 30 years of working with Fortune 10 to pre-IPO boards, their effectiveness is predicated on how—and how well—their board leaders lead. The best can harness the individual talents of their fellow directors to create the necessary decision-making aperture and constructive tension that allows for the best possible decisions.  While admittedly there are individuals who have the unique and innate ability to lead other leaders, many of the most impactful board and committee chairs have developed their approach through hard work, agility, accessibility, courage, humility, and integrity.

As corporate boards continue to evaluate and add new directors, it is important for nominating committees to prioritize how candidates learn, adapt, and overcome as much as focusing on their past accomplishments. From our recent survey of public company directors, we highlight the best practices of great board leaders. We hope this will serve as a guidepost to build and enhance your own boardroom culture.

1. Establishing a Culture of Trust and Embracing Diversity of Viewpoints: The most impactful and revered board members can foster a board culture where trust and constructive discourse are paramount. This involves creating an environment where diverse opinions are valued and where challenging discussions can occur without fear of retribution. It’s about harnessing the collective wisdom of the board to make the best decisions possible. In today’s globalized business environment, embracing diversity of thought is not just a moral imperative but a strategic one.

2. Engaging Deeply in Strategy and Providing an ‘Outside View’: Successful boards are deeply engaged in various aspects such as strategy, digital integration, M&A, risk management, talent development, IT, and marketing. They contribute significantly by providing an ‘outside view’ to strategy and challenging the strategic alternatives presented by management. This requires directors to offer guidance and constructive feedback, ensuring that the company’s strategic direction benefits from diverse perspectives.  This is only possible if board members are avid and continuous learners who can connect the lessons of the past with the current trends and issues facing companies today. 

3. Objectivity and Big-Picture Mindset: A director must be objective and possess a big-picture mindset. It’s essential for board members to be future-ready and have the courage and decisiveness to make high-quality decisions on pressing strategic issues. A great director steers the board’s attention to these critical strategic issues and potential risks, balancing short-term and long-term perspectives.

The role of a director as a leader on the board is multi-dimensional and requires a blend of strategic insight, objective decision-making, courage, and the ability to foster a culture of trust and inclusivity. By embodying these qualities, directors can significantly contribute to the success and resilience of their organizations, steering them towards a sustainable and prosperous future. Boards looking to enhance their effectiveness would do well to cultivate these traits or prioritize them during the selection process, ensuring their directors are equipped to navigate the complex and ever-changing landscape of our business world.

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Brett Stephens is the CEO of RSR Partners and helps lead the firm’s Board & CEO Services

RSR Partners is a boutique professional services firm headquartered in Greenwich, CT, that specializes in helping Boards and CEOs with their most critical recruiting, selection, and succession needs. The firm was founded in 1993 by industry icon Russell S. Reynolds, Jr. The firm has conducted thousands of projects for Boards and CEOs at public, private equity-backed, and family-owned businesses across a range of industries including asset management, consumer goods and services, industrial, technology, and healthcare. To learn more about RSR Partners, click here.