In a rapidly changing world, Boards of Directors (or Trustees) can play a significant role in becoming a catalyst for change within large, traditional companies and other institutions. Unfortunately, this role is still an untapped opportunity in most institutions.
What’s the need?
As I’ve written about extensively, we are in the early stages of a Big Shift that will transform our global economy and society. The paradox of the Big Shift is that it creates mounting performance pressure and exponentially expanding opportunities at the same time.
Mounting performance pressure takes many different forms – intensifying competition, accelerating pace of change and extreme, disruptive events. That pressure creates an imperative for change – if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’ll become increasingly marginalized and ultimately be wiped out.
But the good news is that the same long-term forces are creating exponentially expanding opportunities – we can create far more value with far less resources and far more quickly than ever before. These are not just opportunities – they are imperatives. In the Big Shift world, only those who see and address these exponentially expanding opportunities will navigate successfully through the mounting performance pressure.
Re-imagining the role of boards
Boards today are generally viewed as fiduciaries for shareholders in the institution. Unfortunately, this role is generally defined too narrowly in today’s world. Board members are expected to represent the interests of shareholders as they currently express those interests. The problem is that shareholders are increasingly focused on maximizing short-term returns. “Short-termism” reigns supreme.
If the shareholders truly understood the exponentially expanding opportunities being created by the Big Shift, their interests would shift from maximizing short-term returns to unleashing the exponential returns that can be generated in the Big Shift. So, the challenge for Board members is whether they should continue to pursue the current short-term interests of shareholders or become catalysts to help shareholders (and management) see the much bigger opportunities that could generate far greater returns over time.
Catalysts for change
Boards are uniquely positioned to become catalysts for change in large, traditional institutions. While boards typically include some leaders from within the organization, they also bring together a group of individuals from outside the organization who represent diverse backgrounds. These individuals are uniquely positioned to provide an “outside-in” perspective for the management of the institutions who tend to become consumed by “inside-out” perspectives as they embrace scalable efficiency institutional models.
But to harness the potential of this “outside-in” perspective, board members must be willing and able to become provocateurs, challenging the implicit assumptions held by the internal management of the organization. They must invest time in exploring how the world outside the organization is changing and they are uniquely positioned to do this, given their backgrounds and experience outside the organization. They can not only rely on their own experience – they can also be proactive in inviting more outsiders to engage with them and the leadership of the organization regarding the trends that are re-shaping the environment of the organization.
These perspectives can help to build greater awareness of the large, emerging unmet needs of customers and other stakeholders of the organization (e.g., business partners and suppliers). They can also increase understanding of the potential to mobilize a broader set of resources to address those unmet needs and create much more value, with far less resources, and far more quickly than ever before.
These emerging perspectives can be catalysts for change at two levels. They can engage the internal management of the organization. At the same time, they can engage the external investors who are likely still pursuing narrow, short-term returns.
From provocation to excitement
Board members should never under-estimate the challenge of shifting the perspectives of the internal management or the external investors. To shift these perspectives, board members need to move beyond provocation. They need to frame exciting opportunities for creating much more value and focus on identifying the trends that are making these opportunities more and more feasible. Where possible, they should provide explicit examples of organizations that are already starting to address these opportunities and the impact that they have achieved. If those examples are not yet available, they should focus on identifying some short-term initiatives that the organization can pursue in addressing these opportunities and demonstrate tangible progress with relatively modest effort.
Those who have followed my writing will recognize that I am suggesting that board members should embrace a version of the “zoom out/zoom in” approach that can help to drive change by helping to overcome the fear and skepticism that often makes people resistant to change.
While the primary focus should always be on the exciting opportunities that can overcome fear and skepticism, board members can also be helpful in broadening the perception of risk among management and investors. Most risk management discussions focus on the risks associated with new initiatives. Very rarely is there any discussion of the risks associated with continuing on the current course. In the Big Shift world, continuing on the current course is often the highest risk option of all, yet few leaders or investors understand those risks.
The key is to understand that just focusing on the risk of the current path will only strengthen the fear that will increase resistance to change. If Board members want to become catalysts for change, they need to focus on framing exciting opportunities that can motivate management and investors to abandon their current beliefs and embrace new approaches that can deliver much greater rewards.
Board members are uniquely positioned to become catalysts for change, creating a springboard for the delivery of much greater impact and value in a rapidly changing world. To harness this potential, board members need to leverage their position as outsiders and help both management and investors to see exciting opportunities that are not yet on their radar screen. The key is to help both management and investors move beyond fear and cultivate intense excitement about exponentially expanding opportunities.
By playing this role, board members will become true fiduciaries for investors, helping them to significantly increase the return on their investment, while at the same time helping management to achieve much greater impact.