Speaker profile: Ashley Harshak on board culture and passionate directors

Ashley Harshak is a Partner at Telos Partners, whose mission is to align all stakeholders so members and directors collectively contribute to an organisation's sustainable long term success. Previous clients include Central England Co-op, DWP and npower. 

This Q&A took place ahead of Ashley's session on Getting the Board to Work – Behaviours in the Boardroom at the Practitioners Forum on 19 November (2015). The one-day professional training and networking event is designed for those working in a range of business areas including finance, HR, governance, membership and communications.

Q: What is ‘board culture’ and why is a strong board culture important?
A: Rather than talk about a board’s culture, I look at the collective dynamics or behaviours of the board. These dynamics can either support the board in delivering on its purpose or mission, or it can get in the way. When a board is clear on what it is seeking to achieve as a board, and the behaviours are aligned to it, the board members will be working together, providing each other with both support and challenges, and there will be many of the characteristics of you would find in a high performing team. It is important to point out that a board can have a strong ‘personality’ but these behavioural traits are not conducive to effective ways of working and the board behaviours are dysfunctional.

Q: Have you any examples of bad director behaviour (and the negative impact of that behaviour)?
A: Bad behaviours can be at the collective and individual level. Bad collective behaviours can range from directors uniformly not reading board papers in advance and coming unprepared to board meetings, through to group think and board members going along with the sentiment in the room rather than seeking to challenge each other. At the individual level, poor behaviours could include board members being on their smart phones or laptops, or talking over and interrupting fellow directors. Regardless of the type of inappropriate behaviour the impact is the same – the board is not getting the best out of the collective skills and experience of the individuals around the board table and therefore is not going to be as effective as it could be.

Q: What makes for a good director?
A: From my experience a good director has two main attributes. They bring and use their experience to ensure the boards work, and potentially even more importantly they are passionate about making the whole board successful. This combination of experience and attitude is so essential. Without the right attitude even what might appear as the best person on paper can actually be quite a disruptive influence.

Q: How can you ensure harmonious relationships between the board and a co-ops’ members/employees?
A: There is no magic wand that will ensure the relationship between a coop’s board and its members and employees will always be harmonious. However, what a board needs to constantly put at the centre of its endeavours is how they are role models for the coop’s purpose and mission. This requires them to demonstrate the coop’s values and principles in how they work together, how as board members they interact with members and with employees. A coop board needs to bear in mind that employee engagement starts with how the board interacts with employee directors and management, and that  membership engagement starts with how management and employee directors interact with elected lay directors.