Board work has an image problem which we are feeding!

I have run – recently quite frequently – into discussions with business people many of them not having board work experience. A bit surprisingly, the image of board work has surfaced in quite sceptical light. This could partly be a result of a version of the universal phenomena of NIH (not invented here). Often, we people tend to be critical or sceptical towards things we have not been able to try personally. Sometimes the origin of the comment is a CEO / MD who has been “blessed” with an experience of poorly run boards. This might be more common in family and/or SME companies than in their publicly listed peers. Nevertheless, whatever the reason, one – not least Directors’ Institute Finland (DIF) – should work to change these unsubstantiated comments and opinions.  Best medicine is of course all training and communication aimed at opening the true core of good board work. This, in my opinion, DIF is doing with honours.

But what could we all do – especially towards non-board experienced business people? Of course, all the same DIF is doing. But we should also concentrate to details of terminology and ways to express ourselves. As in details, even according to the old proverb, hides the devil.

I propose we board members totally give up one expression.

Modern board work is demanding and requires many skills and knowledge. For a good board there is need for expertise in all the substance knowledge a company in general requires. In board work there needs to be deep understanding and experience of the particular branch of “the industry”. The board needs to master the knowledge of all the core functions of an enterprise: sales-marketing-customer interface in general, legal issues, finance and accounting, structural reshaping, strategy formulation, production, and chain of logistics. Moreover, the board should have excellent skills of interaction, communication and leadership – and countless other things. Not to forget the digital dimension of all this. Thus, it should be self-evident that mastering all this is an extremely demanding task. Even if – or rather especially because – no single board member can be an expert of all these.

To start with, I propose we board members totally give up one thing – just one expression.

To spread deep understanding of the nature of the work done in the boards, we should not use terminology that hints to passive participation and “from above granted status of presiding the company”. In times of numerous monopoles and closed economies, there might have been businesses and entire industries where it was enough to place the board in the throne to govern the empire. Luckily those times are long gone. Thus, we should abandon terminology derived from those times. Especially one expression. This unfortunately common expression sounds lordly and thoroughly passive. For an outsider, and particularly for the generations born after the 60’s, the expression is interpreted descriptive both in terms of hierarchy and efficiency. The board and its members are there to work, act, execute, accomplish, produce, achieve, gain, win, generate, earn, conclude, carry out, solve, reconcile… The board is not there to sit.

I wrote this “pamphlet” in English because the expression is equally lame in English and Finnish languages. Let us stop saying “I am sitting on the board of…” “Istun sen ja sen yhtiön hallituksessa.”

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Hautamäki Päivi
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Hi Panu, I’ve been a Chairman and a board member in both listed and private companies and a board secretary in many other international corporations. I’ve never used or heard anyone else using that expression. Instead I’ve used and heard the expressions act, work, vaikuttaa. That’s a good sign, right? 😉