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Developing trust and respect on your board team

Jan 21, 2019

The challenge for board teams has never been greater in terms of the unrelenting wave of disruption happening in every sector: radical new business models, ferocious competition, regulatory change, new business models, technology disruption and geo-political crises. Each board team needs to be at the top of its game to help navigate the organisation through turbulent waters as well as grasp significant strategic opportunities. 

One of the hallmarks of high-performing board teams is the ability to demonstrate consistently strong levels of high-quality challenge and debate which not only optimises the core function and decision-making capability of the board but builds sustainable, high-levels of respect and trust between the executive and non-executive board members. Outstanding levels of high-quality challenge and debate enable the board team to really push each other to maximise its intellectual firepower, the expertise and experience of each board member, the diversity of thinking styles around the table, the independence of the non-executive directors and, in doing so, to help the board team make the very best decisions as well as “see around dark corners” to spot early serious risks and threats to the organisation.

Why do so many board teams, even with highly-experienced executive and non-executive directors, struggle in the area of challenge and debate? A few reasons.
  • Poor leadership by the board chair and CEO in terms of enabling the highest levels of openness, accountability and legitimising genuine robust constructive challenge of the executive team;
  • Lack of understanding by both execs and non-execs of how each individual board member needs to effectively contribute and behave in terms of tough challenge and resulting debates;
  • A defensive attitude by the CEO and executive team that neither welcomes or facilitates challenge by the non-exec directors;
  • A poor attitude and approach by the non-exec directors in terms of low-quality aggressive questioning, laziness/refusal to study the materials/issues properly or unnecessary challenge and second-guessing of the executive team;
  • The board team in cruise-mode and too much politeness around the board table;

And there are more where that came from. However, there are some practical steps boards are able to take to develop a virtuous cycle of challenge, debate, respect and trust within your board team.

Nurturing challenge and debate

The board chair has a critical leadership role in legitimising challenge, encouraging the non-execs to provide constructive oversight of the executive team and to facilitate high-quality  debate. Likewise, the CEO has a key role in setting an example of openness and accountability, and engaging with the non-execs to debate the key issues

Developing mutual respect 

As a board team improves the level of constructive challenge and debate, it gradually builds levels of respect and trust in each other. 

Sharing perspective

It is a lot easier to be on the receiving end of some tough challenge when you trust the board member raising it. While you might still disagree with their perspective, with truth and respect, you will listen properly and understand their view point which enables you to contribute effectively to the discussion.


A board team can be at its very best when all board members feel that everything is out on the table, no information has been held back and, for better or worse, the brutal reality is in front of them. This usually requires an extremely open and highly accountable CEO and executive team who will provide the board with an honest and comprehensive picture, and flag bad news early even it reflects poorly on the executive team’s performance. This also requires a high-quality board information model which enables the non-execs to understand what often is a very large complex maze of operational, financial, sales, people and risk data.

Working for the good of the board

As a spirited give-and-take becomes the norm, each board member listens more effectively and learns to adjust their own interpretations in response to intelligent, thoughtful questions, responses and perspectives. This is ultimately what distinguishes the best board teams. It optimises the decision-making, enables the team to respond swiftly to a crisis and helps identify the transformational strategic opportunities.
In summary, every board team has the potential to improve the levels of challenge, debate, respect and trust in the board team. It takes genuine commitment by all board team members and outstanding leadership by the board chair, CEO and company secretary. 

Kieran Moynihan is Managing Partner of Board Excellence.