Be On The Board Once
No one knows where this will lead, and what power sharing or cohabitation it will carve, but it will certainly bring us face-to-face with our own inconsistencies, and give our employees a chance to feel effectively empowered—with a strong voice. We should never be scared of our own people, whatever it is they have to say or demand—the result is always vastly superior to the ostrich approach of looking for subtle ways of keeping their demands subdued.
In a Nutshell
Our ideas of company board meetings are heavily dictated by what we see in popular culture: Large, opulent conference rooms; men and women smartly dressed in suits; and heated arguments on mute because you’re always outside the soundproof glass walls of the board room. The business of the board has always been a well-guarded secret that comes into public scrutiny only when there’s a corporate disaster.
In fact, employees in most organizations never get the chance to personally meet or interact with board members; and, they often believe the decisions that affect them are taken by people who don’t know them or care about their opinions. In reality, a very negligible percentage of an organization’s employees really understand the rationale behind the strategic decisions made by the top-brass leadership.
The conventional demarcation between the people who strategize and those who execute those strategies isn’t the best recipe for employee engagement. When people don’t really understand or connect with the strategies you propose to them, it leads to poor execution, especially on the frontlines, and defeats even the best among strategies.
Open up a seat on every board meeting and encourage employees to be a part of board deliberations.
Imagine the kind of engagement employees will feel, if they’re made a part of the strategy creation. When people, regardless of their place on the hierarchy or their experience, are encouraged to think about the company’s next steps, it makes them feel like they’re part of the action. But above everything else, inviting any employee to occupy a seat on the board sends out a very powerful message to the entire organization: That the leadership has nothing to hide; and, that they want to be transparent and reduce the power distance between management and employees. It would also be a great opportunity to make employees who’re usually out on the field, feel included and important.
Get all your board members onboard: Before such a practice can be put in place, all board members need to be on the same page. It’s natural for some amount of resistance to emerge, but only those who see the long-term value of transparency initiatives will eventually remain on the board. The system will organically remove those who aren’t in agreement so expect some changes at the top.
Announce an extra seat on the board: Once you’ve got the support of all your board members, make it public. Announce the introduction of an extra seat on the board which can be occupied by any employee. Expect some initial disbelief and if your organization hasn’t been very transparent until now, it might arouse some suspicion and confusion among employees. However, make it clear that any employee – right from interns to senior employees – can apply to be a part of the next board meeting.
Make the application process simple: If you create an application process that’s too long-winded or complex, it will defeat the entire purpose.People will not be motivated to go through all that trouble for something they’re aren’t even sure of. So, it’s crucial to keep the process simple. Someone interested should send in a simple application form to the HR department or the team responsible for setting the agenda for board meetings. After reviewing the application, the response can be an yes or a no depending on availability.
Bear the expenses involved: Another sure-fire way to discourage people from applying to be on the board would be to suggest that they’d have to bear all the expenses – especially, if the board meetings routinely happen somewhere else. If a person’s application goes through, they should be offered free travel and accommodation.
During the meeting: Irrespective of the employee’s level or experience, they must be treated with courtesy and respect. It’s quite likely that the employee feels intimidated by being in the presence of all the big-wigs in the company. So, it’s the responsibility of the board members to make them feel comfortable and welcome; to keep the discussions accessible enough for the newcomer; and to encourage their participation. Although, most employees will not be able to contribute much to the actual discussions, board members shouldn’t forget that they’d be taking back an extremely powerful message to their peers.
Initiate other transparency initiatives parallely: If you plan to open up your board meetings, it cannot happen in a vacuum. It needs to be flanked by other transparency initiatives. You could start by distributing critical information in open and transparent ways in spaces like general meetings, departmental meetings and other such moments. Some of the most critical discussions in a board meeting revolve around the company numbers. So, consider opening up your numbers to employees and educating them to interpret them correctly. In this way, there will be almost no topic that gets discussed solely by board members. Make it clear that all relevant information could be accessed by anyone, but beware that too much information can also paralyze people and affect productivity.
Hold separate meetings to discuss extremely sensitive topics: Despite all the transparency, organizations still tend to have some levels of information that are extremely sensitive. In such cases, it’s best not to include such topics in the agenda of the usual board meeting. The board could, instead, convene at a different time to deliberate on the sensitive issue. However, if the whole company already has access to the company’s numbers, it’s quite possible that employees will spot that something major is on the horizon.
Build trust and dispel fears of information leaks: It’s extremely important to create an environment of trust and safety without the fear of employees leaking information to competitors. More often than not, the value of such “leaked information” is only illusory. There’s very little a competitor can do with information leaked to them and, in reality, nobody sits around waiting for such leaks. When you offer such high levels of trust, most people will see no point in leaking or selling information to competitors.
Level to implement
Get all board members onboard
Make the employee feel welcome and included
Keep discussions accessible and friendly
Initiate other transparency initiatives parallely
Trust employees not to “leak” information
Make the application process over complicated or expensive
Discuss extremely sensitive information
Worry too much about “leaked” information changing the entire landscape
Sends out an extremely powerful message to the entire organization
Creates a positive buzz and curiosity amidst employee
Can boost employee morale tremendously
Improves employee engagement and sense of ownership
Tangibly reduces power distance
There may be resistance from some board members initially
Sensitive information might spread faster through the organization than you’d like
It might be intimidating for newcomers
Danilo Serafini, who now works in the Sales Department, was an intern when Semco first introduced this practice. Although he was just an intern, he decided to give it a shot and applied to be on the board once. His application was approved and when he entered the board meeting, he recalls being really intimidated. The enormity of the moment – an intern attending a board meeting – was just dawning upon him and he wasn’t feeling very confident. But, as the meeting progressed, he began to feel very involved and respected by the rest of the board. Of course, he couldn’t contribute anything to the discussion because he was a young intern who didn’t know much about the company at that point. However, he remembers that the discussions made a lot of sense and that the directions being proposed as next steps were quite solid. So, even though he didn’t have a lot of experience or understanding of the business, the discussions were still quite accessible and it wasn’t difficult for him to keep up with it.
The next case study also involves someone who didn’t really believe he’d get an opportunity to be on the board. Guilherme Guisson who was in Rio de Janeiro, applied to be a part of the board meeting just out of curiosity. And, he was quite taken aback when he received an email with details of his trip to São Paulo – where the board meeting was scheduled to take place. A simple salesman, Guilherme Guisson knew he didn’t have any strategic contribution to make during his time on the board. However, what was really important was the message he took back to his team and the confirmation that this was really happening. That was a 100 times more valuable to the company than any strategic contribution he could have made. By being on the board once, he’d helped prove to the whole organization that the management at Semco was really walking the talk.