What I Have Learned in Ten Years of Teaching “Difficult Conversations in the Boardroom”

Author: Dirk Schlimm, Partner, Jenoir International |

Blog by Jenoir International Inc

In December of 2009 I taught my first session on “difficult conversations in the boardroom” at the ICD/Rotman Directors Education Program (DEP 29). In the following 10 years, I delivered the program over 100 times - at the Rotman School in Toronto and as a DEP national instructor in Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, and St. John’s. Of course, the program has evolved since; some topics of difficult conversations have remained constant and new ones have entered the boardroom: People decisions (whether board members or executives) have always been a difficult conversation; the risks and opportunities of data driven business models are a new topic.

After leading the session 100+ times it has not become boring - participant groups in different parts of the country bring different and unique perspectives, they are always challenging, and they almost always contribute new perspectives and “angles” on a highly relevant topic. Three things stand out:

  1. Listening is hard. While I have had some fantastic listeners in the program, for the most part people don’t listen. This is all the more startling as one of my co-instructors in Toronto exhorts and even implores people to listen in the session just preceding mine. The reason why they don’t listen is not because they are tone deaf but because they are being challenged and - in the heat of the moment - allow their emotions to take over. Having debriefed with many “non-listeners” the insight is almost always the same: When being challenged in front of their peers, listening is the last thing on their mind. None of these people, by the way, would have thought of themselves as emotional or poor listeners before the class started - on the contrary, in fact. Listening is hard.
  2. Understanding your role is hard. Corporate boards and board members function in two seemingly contradictory but ultimately complementary roles: as advisors and disciplinarians. Especially in Toronto participants almost always take the latter stand and are quick to invoke the authority of the Chairman when entering into a difficult conversation with the CEO (in the case scenario the roles are split). The assumption is that that the scenario plays itself out in a bank type board (even though the case scenario does not call for this) but board cultures can be very different: earlier stage companies, family companies, entrepreneurial companies, etc. may have very different cultures and call for very different approaches. Often the role to be played will depend on the situation and the issues: “Not everything is the Alamo.” The key is that both advice and discipline are needed at different times. Understanding your role is hard.
  3. Being useful is hard. DEP sessions are full of smart people, many of whom are “shot callers” in their professional contexts. The program is highly interactive and I have yet to step in front of a class where people are characterized by being shy. I do have a pre-planned teaching agenda and firm idea how the class should unfold for maximum instructional effectiveness. But that plan and structure is not known - for all intents and purposes the class seems to progress organically from a participant’s perspective. Over the years, some participants have stood out with thoughtful contributions that move the discussion forward and benefit the entire class. Others - while certainly witty and often challenging - served no other purpose than demonstrating how smart the speaker is. Reflecting back, my own contributions in DEP 6 were probably as often in the latter than in the former category. Being useful is hard.

Learning is a two-way street and over the past 10 years I have learned as much, if not more than my “students.” A special thanks goes to my in-class “sparring partners” - they make it fun and they make the ultimate contribution to - and sometimes sacrifice for - the equally desirable and elusive goal of “instructional effectiveness”. And a big thanks to Rick and David: I couldn't have done this without you.