‘Boards need more directors who are humble’

Humble and curious directors are willing to learn what they need to know to fulfil their roles and responsibilities, an expert in aged care governance tells Australian Ageing Agenda.

Humble and curious directors are willing to learn what they need to know to fulfil their roles and responsibilities, says Better Boards managing director Raph Goldsworthy.

Mr Goldsworthy answers Australian Ageing Agenda’s questions on good governance in aged care.

AAA: What attributes do aged care boards need in this era of ongoing reform?

Raph Goldsworthy

RG: Boards need strong policies and procedures, recruitment and induction processes and robust reporting.

At the individual level, boards need more directors who are humble. Humble directors collaborate to find the answers, they seek counsel of those who can offer insight and they are willing to acknowledge when they don’t know something.

Humble directors usually have a good handle on what is and isn’t inside their circle of competence. They will support and commit to the vision of those directors who contribute insight. All of these are important personal qualities in a dynamic environment like aged care.

How do aged care boards create the right culture?

A strong and positive culture is one of the few true competitive advantage an organisation possesses because culture is very difficult to replicate. It is heavily influenced by the past and present circumstances of the organisation.

Many boards don’t give culture the attention it deserves. Directors need to spend time considering how the board’s own culture influences the way it governs and how that flows into and influences the organisation as a whole.

Creating the right culture takes work. The number one thing that’s required in order to get the board engaging with culture is to carve out space on the agenda for in-depth discussion.

Developing a board culture also requires that director do more than just have board meetings together. They need to go out and engage in learning opportunities, such as attending conferences and visiting other organisations. Such steps also help directors get to know each other better.

What traits do individual board members need?

There many traits that directors should possess but two foundational ones are “strong opinions, loosely held” and a “deep understanding of governance”.

The first is an understanding that directors should have conviction in their beliefs about the organisation, its direction and how it should operate.

But those beliefs must be based on facts, experience and knowledge. Yet directors need to be open to those facts, experiences and knowledge changing over time. We must periodically review and update or change, if necessary, our positions on issues or decisions in the boardroom.

The second is based around the idea that we typically fall back to the level of our training when we encounter stressful or unfamiliar situations. Undertaking ongoing professional development and training is critical to develop a deep understanding of governance, particularly as the industry changes.

How can directors add to their strengths?

One way directors can add to their strengths is by reflecting on whether they would still sit on the board even if they could not tell people about it.

That’s because many of us do a lot of things to placate our ego – such as joining boards we don’t really want to be on but we get accolades for being there.

If you can genuinely answer this question with a yes, then you already have a humility that allows you to learn new things and add to your strengths.

Humble and curious directors are willing to learn what they need to know to fulfil their roles and responsibilities.

Indeed, they’re willing to go further and find out more than they might need to know to perform their director duties.

In times of change this learning is critical to decision-making.

Even if a director has been in the industry a long time or served on boards for many years, a willingness to engage in learning is critical because what worked yesterday will not necessarily work tomorrow. Change is constant.

What common mistakes should aged care boards avoid?

Most boards and directors don’t give much thought to how they, individually or as a group, make decisions. There is often no disciplined decision process.

Most of us assume a discussion and analysis of information is all that’s required to make quality decisions.

We also all assume that that we are completely rational and deliberate decision-makers, but this is not the case. We fall prey to all sorts of biases, both individually and as a group, and even something as simple as not having eaten or being tired impairs our ability to make a quality decision.

Good quality decisions are made by having a process around them, something which many boards do have, but there is still a lot of work to be done given most still focus on the analysis.

Taking the time to ensure the board is going through a rigorous decision process is critically important.

Research by Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony for McKinsey showed that having a well-developed decision process in place for strategic decision making in organisations mattered even more than analysis and discussion of the relevant information by a factor of six.

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