Board game

Karen Lynas

Are you ready to step up to board level? Karen Lynas, Director of Leadership at The King’s Fund, looks at the personal challenges.

Publication:  Health Management
Reference:  Health Management, September/October 2008, pp. 34

Elsewhere in this issue, Stuart Emslie talks about the corporate challenges for high performing boards and the issues that boards face if they want to drive successful organisations. The personal challenges for those moving into their first board role mirror the organisational ones.

Establishing the right kinds of behaviours, balancing corporate, expert and functional responsibilities, and assuming the role of an executive director with the statutory responsibilities that go with that role, will all present major challenges for new executive team members.

Much investment has been made recently in supporting new directors and a raft of investment is about to be made helping new commissioning boards – but what are the personal challenges you will face as a new director?

The King's Fund is currently running a number of programmes for strategic health authorities aimed at people new to board roles or aspiring to those positions. There is one aspect of taking on this new role that many of these otherwise successful, capable and intelligent leaders fail to adequately prepare for – what are you going to stop doing so that you create time and space to fulfil your new responsibilities?

Being the functional head of a department, being an expert on the board and being an executive director with corporate responsibilities for the effectiveness of a whole organisation, is actually much less about what you do, and more about how you think and act, how you behave, how you lead.

As an executive director what you cannot continue to do is take day-to-day operational responsibility for the running of your department. That is a task you must delegate. What you can do is provide leadership and direction, and establish the conditions and environment for those in your team to succeed. Being an executive director is about providing leadership, not about administering a service or department. Letting go and changing those behaviours is for some people the hardest challenge of all in moving into a strategic role.

We recently ran a programme for a group of directors looking to move into chief executive posts, and spent a week with them in a fairly remote venue, with very little access to mobile phone networks. The varying responses to this enforced isolation from their teams turned out to be a telling differentiator. Some participants became extremely anxious about the notion that they were not contactable should any crisis emerge. How will the team cope? What on earth am I going to go back to? What if the board or non-executives need some vital information? Such questions belied not only a lack of confidence in their team but, equally concerning, an anxiousness about their own irreplaceable value to the organisation.

Other participants coped very differently, expressing mild frustration about the inconvenience (largely of not being able to contact home, rather than work) but with absolute confidence in their team to cope with anything that arose in their absence. They also seemed confident that plans were in place well in advance so nothing but unforeseen emergencies would occur that weren’t entirely manageable. Interestingly, what they also demonstrated a commitment to was not only their own development on the programme but a recognition of the value of the experience for those back at the ranch 'acting up'.

Two questions to keep in mind as you move into an executive role – which of these types of leader would you rather work for? And which of these types of executive director are sacrificing a real grasp on the strategic imperatives for their organisation at the expense of continuing to micro-manage their departments?

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