Judging Judgement - Building an Effective Board
Judgement: the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.
Excitingly, we are weeks away from deciding who is going to lead our country for the next five years. Weeks away from picking someone who will have to address huge issues of the economy, health, welfare or education. About foreign wars, immigration or the EU. Near impossible judgement calls, but ones that have to be made. By them and by us. But how?
I’ve recently been talking to people about how to build effective trustee Boards through canny recruitment. We’ve discussed the kind of process – clear, auditable, transparent, challenging and candidate-focused – and the kind of people –adaptable, knowledgeable, well-prepared, astute, intelligent, challenging, with integrity, able to work with others. We’ve spoken about the importance of knowing when to support, stretch, scrutinise, steward and or develop strategy, as Julia Unwin has summarised things in the past.
But how do you actually test someone’s ability to judge when to support rather than scrutinise? When does someone’s thinking go from ‘out of the box’ to ‘outside the tent’? When it comes to challenge, how far is too far? What is the right question to separate thoughtful deliberation from inflexible dogma?
Much of the recruitment I see has yet to find really good responses. The questions asked, even for prospective trustees, are often grounded in functional, executive issues. Competency-based interviews tend to flush out operational skills-based responses. Don’t Board appointments need to be about fit? About the ability to make strategic decisions regarding the future of the organisation? About oversight and accountability?
About good judgement?
Except research shows most of us are actually quite poor at seeing the wood for the trees. We make decisions about each of the many bits of information we deal with on a daily basis as if it is unlikely to have a bearing on similar but seemingly unrelated subsequent decisions. We’re wrong. We consider it a positive to treat every decision – or every person – in a way that is unencumbered by external factors. Unbiased, as it were. Again, we’re wrong.
Our failure to think broadly, to see the big picture, actually makes us more biased. Instead of considering a diverse range of factors (including the power and politics at play in a situation) our brain fits things into boxes. If we flip five ‘heads’ in a row, surely a ‘tails’ is due. If we’ve seen three good candidates in a row, it’s likely a bad one is about to turn up. If someone seems like “one of us” they must be good, especially someone in our network recommended them. It’s illogical, irrational, and it happens every day.
With regards to building Boards, there’s still a risk we’re confusing or conflating the ability to get things done successfully with the ability to take good decisions based on uncertain or incomplete evidence. As my good friend and experienced Board Secretary Simon Carney suggested when I put this to him, if we’re to create increasingly effective Boards in the future, we need to expand the spotlight to include not only what people have done (and therefore what they already have mental references for) but also how they’ve done it.
We have to change the questions and be prepared to work hard to weigh up the rather different kind of answer we’re likely to receive as a result. I’d recommend asking questions about approach rather than outcome, exploring situations without a pre-ordained ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. In other words, test people’s ability to cope with and become comfortable with the unknown or unforeseeable. How they marshal evidence, not just the talk about the result. How they inform themselves broadly rather than narrowly. How they reach conclusions. And what all this means for you.
Of course the paradox is that if many of us have such apparently poor judgement, how on earth are we going to decide if the answer is a good one!?
Well first of all we need to recognise we can’t all be above-average decision makers and accept our knowledge is imperfect. Then we can learn from our mistakes as well as those of others, rather than spinning the story as our political class seems to be doing with increasing fervour these days. Finally, with boards – and organisations – under increasing pressure, it’s vital to change the current rhetoric – and the practice – that might just be stopping us from identifying different ways forward.
After all, as the saying goes: failure doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of a few errors in judgement, repeated every day. Errors we can eliminate. If we judge it appropriate.
Kai Adams is head of charities & social enterprise practice at the executive search firm Green Park, he can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org