I often wonder whether trustee boards and executive teams realise the anxiety they can instil in those coming to them for direction or decisions, and how that fear means they frequently get what they expect, but not necessarily what they need.
I remember one of the very first board awaydays I facilitated.
I was nervous, obviously, but the CEO’s desired outcomes were really clear, and my response was to channel my nerves into precision-engineering the pre-reads and agenda to within an inch of their lives to ensure we got them.
And we got them.
The CEO was delighted: we had kept them on task, got all the decisions she needed, and her agenda, in her own words, had “gotten through pretty much unscathed”.
Apparently, I hadn’t been the only one who was nervous.
But that’s all we got.
There were no collective lightbulb moments; no diamonds of insight emerged from any messy conversations; no minds were expanded, no elephants were seen in the room, no worldviews turned upside down.
I later found out that, for many of the board members, it had felt like yet another session wherein they had felt over-managed, faced with an over-filled agenda, with not enough time to genuinely talk with, listen to or learn from each other.
Had I been among them I suspect I would have felt the same.
I often reflect on that experience, but now from a different vantage point.
Almost 15 years on, I’m in the luxurious position that a lot of the sessions I run these days are almost the antithesis of that early example, by design but also by request – many executive teams and boards do seem much more enlightened now, valuing a more immersive and collaborative experience where their thinking is provoked and challenged and stretched.
Or perhaps I’m just working with a better quality of client, who knows?
But even in those same organisations, when I work with some of the teams within them, I see those same patterns of thinking and behaviour potentially stifling major breakthroughs.
Even the smartest groups of emerging and aspiring leaders can fall into these traps.
They know they should focus on the big ideas they’ve generated and the work they need to do to get them up and running.
They should think about their executive and board presentations purely in terms of how they can best be used to educate their audience, expand their minds with new thinking and move the consensus forwards in line with what they’ve learned themselves.
But the myopia of their fear invariably stops them from thinking beyond the session itself.
In the weeks before, their focus is inexorably usurped by PowerPoints and pre-reads, their bold ideas becoming more muted to meet their anxious expectations of what will and won’t be defensible and acceptable, then filtered again into the anodyne documents through which they need to communicate the progress they’ve made, the options they’ve explored, the decisions they hope to secure.
Meanwhile, all forward movement grinds to a halt.
And as they wait outside the meeting room for their turn to come, then trail in to set up their slides, the mythical elephants and diamonds once more fade from view, the lightbulbs go back on standby, and the existing worldviews can relax, pick up a newspaper and light a cigar.
None of this is intentional. I don’t think anyone actually wants it to happen. But our structures and conditioning are such that it frequently does.
I’ve seen it often enough that I’ve deliberately introduced core principles, frameworks and informal engagement processes into my own projects to circumvent it.
And I’ve seen it enough to suspect it happens in an awful lot of other organisations without ever being seen.
So, the next time you manage to create some of that rare and invaluable free-discussion space with your executive or your board, you might find it provocative, perhaps even mind-expanding, to wonder about how you appear.
About whether the collective image and expectations you perhaps unwittingly project might either encourage or discourage the next bright young thing from shining a light on that invisible elephant, conjuring you up a diamond, or maybe, just maybe, turning your worldview upside down.
Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting