small change: your board evaluation should be unwritten, gruelling but cathartic


small change
Ciarán Fenton
How small changes in your behaviour have a big impact on how you work, lead and follow.
That’s the working title of a book I’m writing, initially as a series of short blogs.
You can see the full blog index here as it builds.
Blog 46 small change: your board evaluation could be unwritten, gruelling but cathartic
•When I say “board” I mean: main & operating boards, ExCos, and management teams
board evaluations unwritten gruelling cathartic
If the members of your board are interested in board evaluations from a compliance perspective only, they shouldn’t read this.
It’s not about compliance.
There are plenty of excellent evaluators who will keep them on the “straight and narrow” in terms of compliance. The best ones will also point out behavioural “matters arising” which the board can, and frequently, ignore.
But if the members of your board have the courage to confront themselves and their behaviour in the service of a shared purpose I recommend the following “boot camp” approach which I use:
  • unwritten
  • gruelling
  • cathartic


Unwritten: the issues around behaviour that really matter can’t be written down

An evaluator can’t write down:

  • “The CEO is a bully; other members of the board are petrified of him/her; fear is the key motivator”
  • “There is a toxic atmosphere at meetings”
  • “On the surface, everything is polite and “nice” but no one really says what they feel. Passive aggression is rife. “


So, the evaluation process must be oral.

  • 1-1 meetings with each board member – four hours minimum
  • First plenary session of the board to review purpose, strategy  and behaviour (PSB) see Index
  • Follow up 1-1s and plenary sessions to agree on “soft” contracts with each other – see Index


Gruelling: “no pain no gain”

  • Behaviour is rooted in formative years’ experiences
  • Connecting with behaviour origin can be a gruelling experience – it was for me
  • Agreeing to change behaviour and sticking with it is hard


Cathartic: even small changes on boards uplift

  • Heart-warming to see people agree to make small changes
  • Achievable because the reciprocal “soft” contracts are motivating
  • Sustainable because once people experience better, they won’t want to lose it



Marshall Rosenberg is famous for his work on nonviolent communication. He died in 2015. His book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life is a best seller.

His advice on getting needs met is invaluable to leaders. “If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met”, he says.

So what? Unresolved conflict, which is bad for your business, is invariably about unmet needs which are not expressed.

Unresolved conflict within boards, teams and joint ventures abound. They are deeply damaging. I know this from my work with clients.

I have developed a simple grid, which I call The Relationship Grid (see Index), to help clients track their key relationships.

I ask them to “RAG” each relationship on a regular basis. On any given day, each leader I know has at least one “Red”, a few “Ambers” and the rest are “Green”.

Getting the Reds and the Ambers to Green is the challenge. Marshall’s advice may help.

CEOs should note his distinction between need and strategy. Needs are about feelings. A strategy is about action.

He tells the story of the couple who had given up on their marriage. “I need to get out of this marriage,” the husband said. This statement was a strategy, not a need. Rosenberg advised them to connect with needs they could perhaps meet without ending the marriage. The husband needed more appreciation, and the wife more closeness. They arrived at a set of agreements that satisfied their needs.

In business, this scenario is also achievable. I have used this technique on many occasions by facilitating  “soft contracts” between board members.

CEOs should heed Marshall Rosenberg on his views on “freeing ourselves from old programming”.

By this, he means our conditioning. The most powerful from our parents.

Rosenberg proposes a “literacy of needs” as an antidote to conditioning by becoming, merely, conscious of it. All mindfulness experts agree that this is the first step in behavioural change. Many CEOs behave unconsciously. Once they become aware, something shifts for them.

Then they can articulate their needs. Needs are feelings, not actions. “When Joe Bloggs does not take responsibility for his team, I panic because I (desperately) need to succeed, and I depend on him”. Those are feelings. “I, therefore, micro-manage him.” That’s an action.

But that move doesn’t help Joe Bloggs. In fact, he feels worse.  “When things go wrong, I panic because I need reassurance that I’m not the bad guy, and therefore I blame others”.

Rosenberg’s formula is:

“When A happens…

I feel B…

because I’m needing C

…and therefore I would like D.”

Apply it to yourself.

The best board evaluation is one which addresses unmet needs.

What are the unmet needs on your board?


Ciarán Fenton 





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