Taking on a non-executive director role at another business can be an excellent career move for fast-rising or senior executives looking to broaden their experience. However, the issue of “silent non-executives” is prevalent in many boardrooms. This phenomenon is not simply a result of poor executive search processes, but rather a complex issue that highlights the effort and input necessary for non-executives to be successful.
One partner of a VC firm emphasises the importance of non-executives asking basic questions that expert executives may have stopped considering. Establishing a culture where non-executives can ask these questions is crucial for a well-functioning board.
Opinions differ on whether it is the role of the chairman or the company secretary to determine why someone remains silent at the boardroom table. Many believe it is the chairman’s responsibility to ensure each non-executive is contributing effectively, while others argue the company secretary should also play a role. In either case, directors should never be afraid of asking questions, no matter how “dumb” they may seem.
Ego and fear of looking foolish often hinder non-executives from asking questions in the boardroom. In fast-moving sectors, such as financial services and technology, non-executives may struggle to keep up with the latest developments. Ensuring non-executives have access to key personnel, such as the chief risk officer, can provide them with a more comprehensive understanding of the company.
Here are a few suggestions for promoting an environment where NEDs are able to contribute effectively:
- Encourage a culture of openness: Foster an environment where non-executives feel comfortable asking questions and engaging in discussions without fear of judgment.
- Provide ongoing education and resources: Ensure non-executives have access to key personnel and the latest industry information to help them stay informed and contribute effectively.
- Conduct regular board evaluations: Use internal or external reviewers to assess the performance and engagement of board members, identifying and addressing any silent non-executives.
- Promote diverse perspectives: Encourage the inclusion of individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise to foster a broader range of viewpoints and more robust discussions.
- Facilitate communication between meetings: Offer opportunities for non-executives to engage with the company and other board members outside of formal board meetings.
- Organise strategy retreats or workshops: Create additional forums where non-executives can ask questions, discuss ideas, and engage in deeper conversations about the company’s direction and goals.
- Set clear expectations for non-executive roles: Ensure that non-executives understand their responsibilities and the importance of their active participation in board discussions.
- Offer guidance and mentorship: Pair new non-executive directors with experienced board members who can provide support and guidance as they navigate their new roles.
Indeed, board evaluations offer one method of uncovering and addressing silent board members. However, not every board uses external reviewers for this process. It is essential to recognise that there can be various reasons for a non-executive’s silence, from insecurity to arrogance or even cultural factors.
The boardroom should be a vibrant hub of diverse perspectives and insightful discussions, not a gathering where the silent non-executive sits unnoticed in the corner. By promoting a culture of openness, providing ongoing education, and conducting regular evaluations, we can ensure that all board members contribute their unique expertise and wisdom.
After all, a board that truly engages in meaningful debate and values each voice is not only an asset to the company but also a delightful reminder that no question is too “dumb” to be asked in the pursuit of progress. So, let us raise our voices, embrace our inner curiosity, and revel in the art of constructive conversation – for the success of the boardroom, the company, and our collective future.