Solange Charas is the president of Charas Consulting, Inc. and a senior-level human capital professional with 20-plus years of experience as corporate CHRO and consulting firm practice director. She is currently pursuing her doctor of management at Case Western Reserve. She has served as the chair of the remuneration committee for a NASDAQ-traded company.
Michael Roberto, author of Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen, shared his insights with the 200 directors who attended last week’s NACD Directorship Forum in NYC. He explained why it makes more sense to concentrate on “problem- finding” than “problem-solving.” Practicing problem-finding helps leaders spot and address emerging concerns while they are still manageable and before they turn into disasters. It is a vital board skill.
Roberto opened his talk with examples from the Cuban Missile Crisis and recounted his conversations with Robert McNamara about that perilous time. He also gave examples from the 2003 NASA shuttle failure from his interviews with then Space Shuttle program manager, Linda Ham. Using these two examples he illustrated the fundamental value of actively seeking out problems before they find you.
I think his presentation had the attention of the audience—there was something seductively compelling about the idea of using proactive techniques to anticipate and avoid dangerous problems. Yet, despite our intellectual agreement that being proactive is always more effective than being inactive or reactive, what’s the trick? How do we set about successful problem-finding?
Roberto offered these seven steps to becoming a proactive problem-finder instead of a reactive problem-solver:
Circumvent the gatekeepers – get unfiltered information.
Become an ethnographer – watch what your constituents are doing and stay alert to what’s happening in the periphery. Watch for “Hirschman’s exit” or “voice” phenomena;
Hunt for patterns – try to draw on past experiences but don’t get caught in the trap of misusing analogies.
Use intuition to “connect the dots;” lessons learned from small problems can contribute to understanding the path of large problems.
Encourage innovative thinking and risk-taking on a small scale – piloting programs and experimenting may be the key to learning. “Fail often, succeed sooner.”
“Watch the film” – what is your team and the competition doing? “Adopt the military’s “After Action Review” (AAR) process to learn and improve;
Create a climate of information-sharing – encourage people to speak up and have a mindset of “openness.”
In my opinion, our shareholders and stakeholders expect us board members to do our best to steward the organization. To do that, we need to listen to our inner dialogue to understand what can inhibit our participation in important activities. What can cause us to abdicate our leadership role? Is it fear that we may be viewed as pariahs and shunned if we voice a dissenting opinion? Do we feel safer if we ignore an issue? Like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, do we believe that if we can’t see the problem, then it can’t see us? Or do we assume that someone else will tell us about the problem when it get big enough? All perilous pitfalls—which might be avoided by practicing problem-finding.
Read more about the NACD Directorship Forum here and here.
To reserve your seat for the NACD D100 Forum, November 8-9 at the Waldorf Astoria, NYC. Sign up to learn from Jet Blue director General (rtd) Stanley McChrystal, Polymer Group CEO Ronee Hagen and HealthSouth CEO Jay Grinney among others, and be our guest at the gala dinner celebrating the NACD D100 and Director of the Year honorees.
An exemplary director acts with integrity and courage in complex, often risky situations. Honored directors have demonstrated dedication to the improvement of corporate governance practices, and have cultivated a reputation as a leader among peers in the business community. By recognizing those directors who are dedicated to the success of the companies, boards, and shareholders they serve, NACD hopes to raise the bar for all directors.
Nominees are evaluated on four key attributes based on the principles of director professionalism: integrity, mature confidence, informed judgment and high performance standards. Winners have demonstrated these principles in a variety of ways, including:
Showing the highest personal and professional ethical standards;
Valuing board and team performance over individual performance;
Acting in ways that have guided their company in maintaining consistent long-term profitability,
Improving shareholder returns, and/or dealing effectively with a crisis or other major change;
And fostering an environment of constant improvement of strategic goals, performance and innovation.
Opening the 2010 NACD Director of the Year Awards celebration by honoring attendees for their integrity, good work, and courage to strive for corporate governance excellence, Mary Pat McCarthy, of KPMG, the Crystal Sponsor for the dinner banquet Saturday night, added, “In this room, we all know guiding a ship in tough seas is never easy; but with these [three Director of the Year Award honorees], it’s easier because we have [the Awardees]—some of the brightest beams—to light our way.”
NACD 2010 Director of the Year Award Winners
These moving words began a celebration of three boardroom heroes, each of whom has demonstrated a spirit of boundless energy towards improving the governance our nation’s boardrooms for the benefit of the shareowners.
The evening’s first honoree, Josh Bekenstein, was honored as NACD’s 2010 Nonprofit Director of the Year. Mr. Bekenstein joked that when
his secretary called to let him know he won “an award for not making a profit during the entire year,” he had a moment of pure panic. In fact, Mr. Bekenstein’s business acumen is legendary. In a taped tribute, one of his colleagues complimented his ability to connect big ideas to powerful execution to get extraordinary results.
Read more about why Josh Bekenstein was honored was NACD’s 2010 Nonprofit Director of the Year.
Next, Richard L. Keyser, former chairman of W.W. Grainger, was honored as NACD’s 2010 Public Company Director of the Year. Mr. Keyser was described as “one of the quietest, most unassuming people in the room” but the person “whose opinions carried the greatest weight.” Mr. Keyser is known to work collegially with others to run a great boardroom and make the world a better place, using this valuable work style praised throughout just about every conference session as essential to running a good board.
Read more about why Richard Keyser was honored as NACD’s 2010 Public Company Director of the Year.
The evening ended with a special presentation of the 2010 B. Kenneth West Lifetime Achievement Award, presented to 12-year DuPont board veteran, Dr. Curtis Crawford. Ellen Kullman, DuPont’s chairman and CEO, flew in to attend the dinner and to personally congratulate Mr. Crawford for his extraordinary accomplishments. “With his background, he is insightful in a way that I and no others in the company are—and he doesn’t shy away from difficult discussions. As chair and CEO, I value that in a board member.”
One way that Mr. Crawford has been sharing his gifts as a strong steward of good governance has been to award scholarships to, and mentor students from, DePaul University, where he serves as a trustee. In fact, the University flies scholarship winners from Chicago to California “to sit at Curt’s knee, absorbing best practices in how to govern an organization well, earning the equivalent of three college credits,” said the University’s chancellor.
Read more about why Dr. Curtis Crawford was honored as NACD’s 2010 B. Kenneth West Director of the Year Award.
Richard Keyser, in his understated yet commanding way, said something earlier in the evening that summed up the insight, knowledge, and integrity of courageous directors. He said that “… all of us in this room, all of us, when we do what is right and follow the basics like integrity and hard work, are boardroom heroes.”