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IMHO: Business directors should ask themselves: 'am I still relevant?'

By Mike O'Donnell
5 Jul 2021
read time
4 min to read
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OPINION: A couple of months ago I attended a board meeting of a non-profit organisation.

Like many of the 97,000 odd non-profits in the country, its full of good people doing a good job and contributing to social outcomes as well as running a business that needs to wipe its face.

In this case I was attending as a subject-matter expert, having been asked to brief the board on a pro bono basis.

The board meeting was running late, so I sat at the back of the room while they finished receiving the management reports and talking with the presenters.

Management reports are a regular part of most board meetings, but in my mind it’s more an opportunity for the board to ask questions or offer support rather than being a relitigation of business as usual.

The manager in this case, the head of operations, quite rightly started her session noting she would “take as read” her report, gave a two-minute update on events since the time of the report and then asked the board if they had any questions.

One director said he certainly did have some questions and proceeded to do an almost line by line review of the report, asking questions that were both arcane and, as far as I could tell, pointless.

The manager kept her cool and was unflinchingly polite and professional, even when it was unclear if the director had actually read the report.

The director went on to quiz the manager on a special project the manager’s team was implementing. Swapping out one cloud-provided software tool for another. The director suggested the manager should go back to a “fat app” sitting on the local network.

I just about fell off my seat. In simple terms this is like suggesting instead of swapping out a Nissan Leaf for a Hyundai Ioniq as the new fleet car, the organisation starts buying horses.

Again, the manager kept her cool and finally the board chair called time on questions, and the board meeting moved on.

The episode made me think of an insect being trapped in a glass jar and then subjected to the Spanish Inquisition. But in this case, it was clear that the inquisitor was sharp as a puddle and harnessed privilege to interrogate.

From what I saw, he was on a position-empowered field trip and his chair should have reined him in earlier. In any organisation the tone from the top sets the cultural climate, and ultimately that resides with the chair.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some good chairs. Chairs that call out bad behaviour and realise EQ (emotional intelligence) is as important as IQ on a board. Chairs that encourage directors to be generous with their time outside of board meetings and create a board culture where interactions are based on mutual respect.

The New Zealand Institute of Directors harnesses a four pillars methodology around effective governance and one of these is building an effective governance culture. In my book a key part of any effective board culture is showing respect for management and parking your ego at the door.

Along with the heady responsibility that goes with being a director, comes power and the obligation to use that power for good.

Brene Brown, a business professor at the University of Houston, spent 20 years studying power in United States corporates. Brown doesn’t believe power is inherently good or bad; it’s how it’s used.

She believes business leaders can use power in two ways. Some business leaders use power over underlings. While others share power with staff and inspire them to develop power in themselves.

‘Power over’ leaders believe there is limited amounts of power in the business and they must corner the market. They do this by instilling fear; and using it to divide and conquer. And too bad if you are collateral damage.

‘Power with’ leaders believe there is no limit to power in a business, and that the best results come from tapping into it with others. This is an inclusive power that says the more we empower everyone the stronger we get collectively.

In my experience ‘power over’ directors tend to fall into three camps.

First there are the narrow experts. Directors with detailed knowledge on one area, be it finance or law or tech or what have you. They believe they are the smartest person in the room and use board meetings to demonstrate that belief, rather than lift up others and support them.

Then there are oxygen suckers. Directors who take up way more than their pro-rata amount of board time with their opinions and analysis, unaware of how much oxygen they suck out of the room relative to their value add.

Lastly there are the glory days directors. Like Bruce Springsteen’s song of the same name, these are directors who once held a big role. Now they are on the governance track but rely on historical positions to justify their current input, rather than the actual value of that input.

Speaking personally, I always fear I might fall into the last camp, so always try to face meetings with the question “am I still relevant”?

And as a chief executive recently reminded me, that’s not a bad question for every director to keep in mind.


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Republished with permission from Stuff: Business directors should ask themselves: 'am I still relevant?'

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the IoD unless explicitly stated.

About the author:

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell MInstD is a professional director, facilitator and writer with a particular interest in digital disruption and consumer centricity.

MOD is chair of Garage Project.  He is also an executive director of Kiwibank, Radio New Zealand, Tourism New Zealand, Serato and Kiwi Wealth.  MOD is an independent weekly business columnist for Fairfax Media and is host of the TVNZ series Start Up.

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the IoD unless explicitly stated.

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