Sport makes headlines off the field as much as on it. Questions concerning governance, decision making, change management and communications have arisen recently in cricket, netball, the NRL and the AFL.
As a second-generation Essendon supporter, I was pained to see the club become a case study in leadership and governance issues. There's been the high-profile departure of a CEO, other board members move on, and ongoing friction that's left fans dismayed.
I don’t know what happens behind the closed doors of the board room at Essendon, but I do know that the club is in the papers for reasons other than footy, and that is something we would all wish to avoid for our own organisations. I also know that when the board doesn’t ask the right questions and doesn’t deal with conflict in a healthy way, then the requisite rigorous debates and risk assessments don’t have a chance to be voiced and heard. This places an organisation at tremendous risk.
We've all heard the phrase "Great minds think alike." But who of us uses it in its fullness? The complete expression is "Great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ." This year, ICDA is working with government-funded programs in all states to promote diversity on boards: diversity of gender, culture, ability, age and more, all of which results in – yes, diversity of thought and opinion. One of the great strengths of diverse boards is their ability to view matters through a number of different lenses, and this can promote good decision making.
Even without overt “diversity”, most boards will have a variety of members – older and newer, for example, and members whose experiences of the organisation vary. This variety is likely to give rise, on occasion, to disagreement. Conflict is not in itself a bad thing – quite the opposite! But how we can ensure that conflict is functional conflict, which serves the organisation well and should be celebrated, and not dysfunctional disagreement, which can quickly spiral downwards into a toxic culture?
We can consult adequately before voting at board meetings to ensure no-one feels blindsided. We can be empathetic. Longstanding board members should ensure they make space for the ideas of newer members to be shared and tried, without throwing around the old line "We’ve always done it this way". Similarly, newer board members should show some humility: probably, most things have been working quite well for a long time. We can be respectful, and focus on the problem, not the person. Ensure the issue is discussed calmly and rationally, with reference to data, and doesn’t become a personal battle.
A board which does not make space for diversity of thought and avoids conflict runs the risk of making poor decisions because it has not fulfilled a crucial aspect of its governance role, which is asking questions. A board member’s silence in the context of discussion on a significant decision doesn’t signify consent. It only means no one has invited them to voice their opinion.
Constructive conflict gives rise to improved performance and better results. It's how board members manage it that will shape the culture of the organisation.