Why board directors need new leadership skills to challenge the power in the boardroom.

The unique adaptive challenge that Boards face is speaking truth to power.  

The highly nuanced definition of the Chairperson as ‘first among equals’ represents a deliciously ambiguous power. Combining that paradoxical definition with the personal power and prestige of the individual can result in a Board reluctant to challenge the voice of the Chair.

The real dereliction of duty on a Board is silence when dissent is useful and constructive.

Sarah Rouhan recently spoke with Rosamund Christie from Adaptive Leadership Australia about the role and importance of adaptive leadership in the Boardroom and C-Suite.

S – What inspires you to build adaptive leadership in Boards and C Suites?

R – True cultural change in an organisation is inspired by those who work at the very top of an organisation – in both executive branches (C-suite and Board). Working with only one of the executive branches exposes vulnerabilities in the system.  There is a tendency at both levels to think there is no more to be learnt about leadership. Board and C-suite positions are in themselves recognition of earlier success.  This can be an impediment to good practice.  There is always more to be learnt and a deliberately developmental organisation has learning in its DNA. Most importantly it is the capacity of senior groups to work with the human dynamics of the particular context of the moment.  

Boards and C-suite groups often limit their effectiveness because there is an idea that what worked well for me at another organisation or Board will work here.  That fallacy is true at both strategic and cultural levels.  We often see great success by individuals in one context lead to abject failure in another.  Developing capability to work with the particular human system you are in, at this point in the organisation’s history, with the external pressures at this moment in time,  and having a consciousness and deliberateness about this, is what makes for successful Boards and C-suites.  When the Board and the Executive group share the same language and practices around leadership, there is potential for this to filter down throughout the organisation and we know that culture drives performance so building an adaptive culture is … well, it’s just really a no brainer.

S – Why now?

R – Boards and their relationship to the C-suites are at a critical juncture at this moment in time.  The Royal Commission into Banking has revealed failures at the very highest levels in blue chip companies with the threat of criminal proceedings hanging over some.  The ABC Board and CEO effectively self-immolated. The Australian Cricket Board brought disrepute to the game.  And so it goes on.  If this can happen within the most prestigious Boardrooms in Australia, it reminds us that there is work to be done at every level. 

S – When you think about the challenges facing both the Board and the Executive team are they the same or different?

R – We see each as having both shared and unique challenges. More importantly, we see these as adaptive because they require the system of people to adapt to the context and challenges unique to their industry and organisation at any one time. Constant adaptation is a key mindset required for companies to thrive.  Organisations are hungry for innovation and agility in the development of their products and services but they rarely think about these practices as equally crucial to their leadership work. 

S – Well what are some of those unique challenges? 

The unique adaptive challenge that Boards face is speaking truth to power.  The highly nuanced definition of the Chairperson as ‘first among equals’ represents a deliciously ambiguous power. Combining that paradoxical definition with the personal power and prestige of the individual can result in a Board reluctant to challenge the voice of the Chair.  The real dereliction of duty on a Board is silence when dissent is useful and constructive.  But managing dissent is often a major obstacle.  We teach groups to voice opposition with neutrality and compassion and to keep purpose at the heart of what they are doing. 

On the other hand, the unique adaptive challenge that members of an Executive Team face is building a collective Executive Team culture whilst simultaneously representing a single portfolio.  Many Executives struggle to determine where their chief allegiance lies.  Managing the plurality of these roles and not privileging one over the other is a key determiner of successful executive teams. The culture of the team as a cohesive whole impacts the culture and motivation of the entire organisation.

Add those adaptive challenges together and throw in the relationship that exists between the Board and the Executive team and we begin to see that there is much work to be done.  

How do you at Adaptive Leadership Australia work with Boards and C-Suite groups?

We begin with each separately and then bring them together.  We often start with Culture Surveys to help each group recognise how others see them as a collective.  It is a great starting point for building adaptive cultures.  We build a collective consciousness, stressing the challenge of speaking as one AND speaking out.  We find it is rare for this kind of complexity to be spoken about, let alone be addressed and yet everyone recognises that what sits under the surface of a group is the real work to be done.  We find this such stimulating work because it develops the capacity for groups to look at themselves as a system and to build a way of calling themselves out so that they become self-regulating in the most productive way.


Australian Adaptive Leadership Program

Find our more about the 2019 Australian Adaptive Leadership Program commencing in May. Applications Close on 31st March 2019.

Interview with Beck Ronkson – Adaptive Leadership Alumnus

We were fortunate to be able to interview Beck Ronkson 
- Community Leadership Consultant – Group Facilitator, Coach and Counsellor, and Alumnus of the Sydney Leadership Program (now Adaptive Leadership Australia) who provided her personal insights into the value and benefits of participating in the Australian Adaptive Leadership Program.

Beck tell us how has the Adaptive Leadership Model has informed your leadership practice?

Beck Ronkson

The Adaptive Model has provided a tremendous ‘value add’ to my leadership practice in so many ways.  The foundational concepts and principles of the model are so valuable and readily applicable to my work in different contexts, whether I’m working for the community not-for-profit sector or government.

I previously ran a small not-for-profit working creatively in the Homelessness sector.  I now consult with, co-design programs and coach community organisations and government on issues such as community engagement, community leadership and collective impact.  Much of it involves walking alongside people to bring awareness to what is happening on a systemic level. Particularly bringing awareness of their role in that, before building capacity in collaborative practices to harness the collective and creative power they have at their disposal.  It’s a long way from my early understanding of a leader as ‘the person at the top’!

The first thing that comes to mind about the ‘value-add’ of the Adaptive model is the value of orienting to purpose.  Clarifying purpose at the outset guides everything I do.  Getting consensus regarding the purpose of what I’m doing in facilitating groups and teams, can be time consuming initially, but this investment at the beginning of the work saves so much time further down the track.  It adds intentionality to my time, my client’s and their stakeholders’ time, and paradoxically it’s an invaluable time saver.

The second thing that I’d like to highlight is the value of thinking systemically. I did Sydney Leadership in 2008 and at the end of the course we wrote a letter to ourselves about what we’d like to focus on and achieve in our leadership practice over the next five years.  I came across that letter a few weeks back.  It’s ten years later and my advice is as relevant for me today as it was then.  It was to keep my leadership practice focused on systems thinking because that is where change happens.  I am still regularly using the concept of the ‘balcony and the dance floor’.

It involves looking in from the outside to see what’s happening in the system whilst simultaneously observing the impact of my interventions.

In my recent work with a large social services provider the application of role theory was another valuable tool for eliminating blame and making progress with the issues.  The service provider’s workers and consumers were in an emotional conflict.  The identification of roles re-oriented the whole system back to purpose and took the heat out of the interpersonal dynamics.  Reference back to role rather than individuals provided a means of ‘externalising’ the problem and allowed stakeholders to look systemically, rather than only looking interpersonally.

Understanding the influence and interplay of different types of rank and power was also helpful. We mapped the system including management, staff and consumers.  It highlighted who was central and who was marginalized in various parts of the system.  This provided more of a shared understanding between all stakeholders and gave a sense of meaning to their experience.  It provided more detachment and perspective.  It also revealed the tension spots and showed possible points to intervene to build capacity in the system.

The adaptive leadership model gave us a shared language to talk about, plan and resource this capacity building in different parts of the system.  A shared language improved our capacity to listen, hear, understand and engage with each other.  The ‘balcony dance floor’ metaphor gave us a great analytical tool to deal with tricky spots.  Stakeholders asked themselves and each other about whether they were on the ‘balcony or dance floor’ in the moment.

Getting on the ‘balcony’ relieved emotions and diffused conflict so we could focus on building collaborative structures.  It is an excellent tool particularly in the context of different levels of rank between service providers and consumers.  It created a more level playing field for engagement. Consumers loved it and responded to the challenge.  The service provider managers loved it and are now rolling it out to all staff.

Of all the Adaptive Leadership tools, one of the most simple, but probably the most important for my work is the distinction between adaptive and technical problems.  As Einstein said the definition of insanity is when something isn’t working and we keep doing the same thing, expecting the outcome to be different.  Knowing the difference between adaptive and technical problems and learning how to identify what is an adaptive versus technical issue gave me a whole new lens into my work for making progress and improving positive social impact.  Understanding that Adaptive problems will not respond to technical fixes is a relieving and hopeful way to make progress in the diagnostic phase.

Knowing that the people who are most impacted by the problem must be part of the solution makes good common sense.‘Nothing about us without us’ is such a useful guideline.  Community engagement involves inviting all voices, especially unusual voices, to the table as a bottom line principle.  Having an Adaptive map with signposts for making progress must include building collaboration.  Working across factions with different values, loyalties and agendas is completely embedded in my practice now.  Making progress relies on setting up the foundation for this collaboration.  The skills of empathy, strategic questioning, reflective listening and curiosity about the values that drive people are crucial here.

Transparency about the core values at the table is a great leveller.  If we don’t get down to core values we don’t get to establish common ground.  Surfacing core values and drivers is the way to build collaboration.  I spend a lot of time seeking to deeply understand the core values of all sides and polarities in the system I’m working with.  It’s a dance with old and new moves.

Another key element of the Adaptive Leadership model that has really influenced my leadership work is the value of knowing about the transactional role of authority.  Understanding that the work of authority involves a transaction of power in return for services (such as the provision of direction, protection and order) was an eye opener for me.

It particularly helped me to toughen up as a leadership practitioner. Ironically knowing that in the role of authority I am never going to meet the expectations that are loaded onto the role, that inevitably I am going to fail, really helps me.  I tend to be an idealist and as such I was very vulnerable to being knocked out by attack.  This new way of understanding the role of authority grew my leadership muscles.

I also have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and for many years I’d be the one out on a limb as it was being sawn off.  The important leadership principle of mobilising others to lead and bringing people along is far more sustainable and much more protective when under attack.  It means that I am still functional at the end of a tough day.  Before doing Sydney Leadership I regularly experienced being wiped out.  I now know that I need a dose of realism informed by awareness as a counterpoint to my idealism.  It’s a protective mechanism for me as well as the organisation.

I’m acutely aware of the need to and how to set up scaffolding before intervening in a high-risk community development situation where the stakes are high. I used to be an enthusiastic ‘doer’ and dive in.  Whilst that is also needed, it’s timing, timing and timing.  Over the years, I’ve come to understand how important spending time on the diagnostic part of the scenario is – it’s what’s often missing (quick we need to make a decision!) and yet absolutely vital to bring about real and lasting social change.


Find our more about the 2019 Australian Adaptive Leadership Program commencing in May. Applications Close on 31st March 2019.

Interview with Beck Ronkson

Coaching. Capacity Building. Creativity.

 https://www.linkedin.com/in/beck-ronkson |  m: 0468 390 273