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Can you say No to the CEO?

The Financial Times recently published an article of mine titled ‘Can you say No to the CEO?’ This was featured on their subscription-only web site so unfortunately I am not able to share it with you direct but I wanted to summarise its message in this week’s blog.

The article was directed at the Non-Executive Director community who play an important role in ensuring the effective governance of our plc organisations. Non-Executive Directors are in an excellent position to deploy challenging coaching skills as part of their roles but how many have been trained in the skills required to do this effectively? Furthermore, how many have the character to play this role?

In the 2009 House of Lords report into banking supervision and regulation, Peter Montagnon, Director of Investment Affairs at the Association of British Insurers, identified the special qualities non-executive directors of banks need – “Expertise on its own is not sufficient because what you do need is sufficient character to say no to the management from time to time,” he said. “If you do not have that character, all the expertise in the world will not help”.

FT Non-Executive Directors Club - Can you say no to the CEO

Recent corporate scandals ranging from the global banking crisis, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill and more recently the LIBOR rate fixing allegations at Barclays plc continue to highlight that Peter Montagnon’s comments from 2009 remain pertinent in today’s economic environment.

The article then went on to explore the relevance of challenging coaching skills in helping Non-Executive Directors to challenge effectively in the boardroom using the FACTS coaching model:-

  • How and when to enter the collective ZOUD (zone of uncomfortable debate)
  • How to give challenging feedback and hold accountability
  • How to optimise tension in boardroom conversations
  • How to challenge the board to reach for a courageous goal rather than settle for business as usual.

Just as with the executive coach, the Non-Executive Director deploys these skills in the interest of the long term sustainability of the organisation even if taking such a stand jeopardises their own short term personal interest. In this way executive coaches and Non-Executive Directors are acting as guardians of the organisational system. They are recognising that in a systems thinking paradigm every conversation counts. Today’s reluctance to take a small step into the zone of uncomfortable debate can sow the seed that leads to the next collective organisational failure. After all, how can complex human systems fail other than one conversation at a time? Or put another way ‘Can you say No to the CEO?’.

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