With apologies to Tolstoy, all happy boards are alike; each unhappy board is unhappy in its own way.
Unhappy boards consist of unhappy directors. This is obvious. But since people speak of boards as if they are people – anthropomorphism, to give this behaviour its technical term – they need reminding that they’re not. It’s the directors who are unhappy, not the board.
Happy boards outperform unhappy boards because unhappy, stressed and frustrated directors don’t perform as well as those who are content, energised and empowered.
The reasons for unhappiness will vary from director to director. But directors share one systemic grievance, also shared by their workforce, which is that work in the 21st Century is often not very fulfilling, at all. The happiness at work surveys, which make for grim reading, bear out this assertion.
If directors can address the systemic issues between themselves on the board, can you imagine what they can do for the rest of their workforce?
I believe the world of work can be fulfilling. Not 100% of the time of course, but I believe in the 75% rule that three-quarters of the time you should be able to say: I’m happy at work. But the world of work is still not what it could be especially for those who sit on boards.
We have only ourselves to blame. In the 20th century we permitted a framework for work to develop which created three components that ensured people became and continue to be trapped on a treadmill:
- The maximisation of shareholder return as a primary purpose
- Human capital management designed to serve that purpose
- Exploitation of human and other resources as the main focus of boards
But the movement towards a new model has been building for some time. Everyone knows that the shareholder framework is no longer fit for purpose but have struggled to break its grip.
As far back as 1994 Charles Handy published The Empty Raincoat to set out a “…philosophy beyond the impersonal mechanics of business organisations…if economic progress means that we become anonymous cogs in some great machine, then progress is an empty promise”.
Even mainstream human capital writers like Jon Ingham were trying to humanise thinking in the early part of this Century in his book Strategic Human Capital Management – Creating Value through People, recognising that value can’t be created through any other means.
In what has been considered a “ground-breaking book”, Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations (2014) set out a thesis that “a new shift in consciousness” is underway which could help us invent “a more soulful and purposeful” way to run our businesses.
He sets out what he calls a “Teal” approach to this new way. This includes self-management rather than cumbersome management structures, bringing the whole person to work and what he calls ‘evolutionary purpose” focusing on what society wants from the business and not on the bottom line.
These are just three of many writers addressing these issues. Their work has been augmented by the growth of “not just profit” movements, which sprung up after the Global Financial Crash in 2008. These include Blueprint for Better Business (of which I am one of several advisers); B Corporations and Tomorrow’s Company.
Many of these use “top down” approaches that have strengths and weaknesses. My contribution to this canon is to take an individual rather than a corporate approach. I believe in individual change as an agent of, so called, organisational change, using the following steps:
First, while I agree with others that the purpose of organisations should be to make all stakeholders equally happy – shareholders/other risk takers, workers, suppliers, their families, their communities and future generations through the proper use of the physical environment involved in the business – I nevertheless believe that they will do so only if directors unilaterally grant themselves permission to do so.
The block so far is that directors are afraid of the investor. But if investors are educated to understand that they are not getting as good a return on investment without conceding to equal stakeholder happiness, then they are likely to give it. The first step, therefore, is to take responsibility for enlightening them.
Second, It has always struck me as odd that companies motivated – red in tooth and claw as it were – by profit, continue to allow their workers, especially their highly paid directors, to leave large chunks of their value at reception because boards have failed to create an environment which encourages them to bring their whole selves to work not just the part circumscribed by their job description or, more often, by the culture of the organisation.
The reason of course for this is linked with the first step, but also because they may not know how, precisely, to deal with the whole person. As one delegate quipped rhetorically at a people conference: “Do we really want people to bring their “whole selves” to work? Really?”
Third, is what I call the “paradox of small change” which is that small changes lead to big outcomes. Changing just ten interactions out of every hundred is just 10% change.
That’s small change. But it’s hard to do. You must start with yourself if you want others and your world of work to change; then you must accept that organisations don’t exist, except in law and in the minds of people who work in them, save that they are groups of individuals who are struggling to be who they should be.
If your board is unhappy and you’re serious about doing something about it, start by demanding equality of return for every stakeholder in the business; then find out what each director needs to be happy, 75% of the time and, finally, negotiate the behavioural small changes required to create an environment in which these are met. That’s it. Simple.