Episode 8 - The dolphin: a caring communicator

In this podcast, Sharon Constançon explains how company secretaries and governance professionals can use their communication skills to improve the effectiveness of the board, creating the perfect environment for decision-making.

In this podcast, Sharon Constançon explains how company secretaries and governance professionals can use their communication skills to improve the effectiveness of the board, creating the perfect environment for decision-making. Sharon outlines how company secretaries can learn communication skills as part of their career development and how they can use them to handle a range of difficult conversations. She describes tactics for tailoring communication styles to individuals to ensure the message is best received, enabling company secretaries to build trust while remaining authentic and allowing them to be a confidante for the directors. Sharon argues that communication is most effective when we take a caring, empathetic approach that acknowledges the human side of our colleagues and the challenges they face.


Transcript

RJ: In this podcast, I'm talking to Sharon Constançon, CEO of Genius Boards, about the importance of communication, empathy and trust in the boardroom. Sharon, could you introduce yourself and give us an overview of the themes we're covering today?

SC: Thank you, Rachael. I am Sharon Constançon. I am CEO of Genius Boards, which is a board evaluation company. Today, we're going to be talking about the importance of communication. We liken that to the ability of the dolphin, who can communicate over huge distances, and its messages are clearly heard by its colleagues. We would like to see boards today looking forward, being far better at communicating with one another. Therefore, we will liken some of our analogies to that of the capabilities of the dolphin.

RJ: What skills do you think are needed to be a universal communicator with the board, such that the company secretary strives to be, and also between board members?

SC: I think we start with the opposite of the word communication; we start with the word listen. It is so critical to listen and to hear and to understand what the communicator was trying to get across. Not what we think they said, not what we want them to say, [but] to actually genuinely listen with both ears and our brain engaged, and to be able to respond when we have finished listening and have collated our thoughts. Rather than trying to override, butt in and stop other people trying to complete the point they want to get across, which is: give other people fair airtime to complete their sentences. It's really important within a board environment for communication to be fair and balanced between all the directors to make sure they all have an equal amount of time to speak to their point.

I think it's important from a chair's point of view to give everybody a fair, safe place in which they can speak that will not be interrupted. Now, that takes a bit of leadership. But once the rest of the board learns the rules of the road, they will stop interrupting and allow each person to have what is commonly stated as at least three minutes to get across the point. We've got to learn to stop trying to answer until we've heard everything because we might actually change the answer we were formulating in our minds.

Communication is really critical. We need to also consider that communication is not just what we say, it's what we think ¬– written across our faces – and what we show through our bodies. Our hand movements, our eye movements, the way we engage physically in the conversation, as well as mentally, and as well as with our ears and our mouths. I think communication is a very holistic thing if we're going to talk about the real ability to do it properly.

RJ: How do you think company secretaries can improve themselves as communicators? Both in speaking and in writing?

SC: I'm going to start with the latter part of your point as to how company secretaries can improve the written word, and then I'll address the spoken word. The advice I would give to company secretaries is to address the point in question [using] very straightforward and simple language, with evidence, references where it's needed, so that you can get the buy-in from that kind of director because some directors want proof, and other directors want the story and the values. It's very important that we cater to all directors.

The one value that company secretaries really bring in the written word, and I see this time and time again, is in the quality of the board papers that come from the executive. I often see quite junior company secretaries who can write far better because they know what the air is, they know what the mind is that's receiving [the board papers] and can send back papers saying: ‘stop selling your product, tell us about the problems that we need to address in your executive role.’ It's [about] changing the narrative around [so] that it's not about selling to the board. Remind the executives [that they] are not there to show and tell, they're there to engage the minds of the board to their benefit. So how do they turn that story around? Company secretaries are really good at helping executives to get the pitch and the content of their papers succinct, short and to the point, making it very clear what's expected of the director.

That's the one part around the written [aspect of communication]. The other bit around the written word is the minutes, probably one of the most important documents that exists aligned to every meeting. It's very important to have a really good quality agenda to which the company secretary is party. Once you have the conversation [it’s important] to encapsulate that entire content in a way that you haven't verbatim produced the minutes of 300 pages, and equally, you haven't done a one pager: these are four decisions we took, because that doesn't work either. We need something in between that evidences the challenge, the pushback, the journey that the board has gone on, to get to the outcomes, next steps, whatever it might be the board has now defined as the next part of their journey, even if it was purely a discussion for the value of the board executives.

When we come to the spoken word, I find the more senior company secretaries are more eloquent and able to express themselves better generally. This comes down to two things. One, what is their DNA? Are they a wise owl? If you have a wise owl, doesn't matter how young they are, they are able to express themselves with absolute confidence because they know their facts. They speak with clarity and with empowered speech because they know what they're talking about. The other aspect we find is when people are junior they feel a bit overwhelmed by the board directors who are the most important people from a seniority point of view, and [it] can sometimes take a couple of years [for them] to realise they are equals. So [in this case the work is] empowering them to have that voice and ability to be an equal to their peers, and that requires knowledge, training, experience.

RJ: What about communicating to wider internal stakeholders to help them understand what the company secretary's role is, as well as external stakeholders?

SC: Sometimes many of us wish the name company secretary wasn't ‘company secretary’. Imagine a seesaw, and you have the fulcrum of a seesaw: you have the board and the executive on one side, and you have the rest of the company on the other side. In between sits what we call the ‘governance fulcrum’. That is where the company secretary sits, in the middle of everybody, able to understand the agendas of both sides of the equation, being able to speak both languages, and to be able to bridge that governance gap that so easily exists between the two, where the executive might not communicate fully what the board is saying, in the tone of the board.

The internal stakeholder might not be able to get their voice up to the executive in a way [that will make] the executive listen. That immediately brings in where the company secretary acts in translating the speech, the objectives, the desires of the two parties such that the communication lands and gets received in the way that it is planned. It's a very strong fulcrum role that they play. If you can imagine getting that balance between the messages from both sides being given and received equally competently: that is what we're looking for in a company secretary being that translator. If you could imagine a dolphin sending messages over vast distances of the ocean, it's very similar to landing that message so that it is understood as planned.

RJ: How, at the beginning of a company secretary’s career, could they start to build those strong relationships with board members that would enable them to play that role?

SC: Interesting, because it's something they should start when they’re within the company secretarial department before they become the board support secretary. [They should be] getting very involved, demanding, pushing, ensuring they get involved in director induction, getting opportunities to observe board meetings. Offer to take the minutes, so the company secretary doesn't have to take the minutes and therefore become the minute taker. You shouldn't have the company secretary as a minute taker; the company secretary should be a participant in the board meetings.

So as a junior, put yourself into the places that will get you into that room. Go and take the resolutions to the chairman. You will engage with them; you can take over those responsibilities that cause you to be in touch with the board directors, even if it's as simple as getting a round-robin resolution sorted remotely. Even that is engagement, where people will then learn that you are capable, you do things, you get them done, which is a very critical part of the company secretarial role, and to be able to communicate what is being done. First of all, what's needed, is the journey and the completion. That's part of the communication message that we're looking for company secretaries to evidence their capability [in]. [That] they are the resilient doers; they get things done. They almost become the seamless glue behind everything: behind every chairman, is a very strong company secretary that just turns the cacophony of the orchestra into a symphony. They just make things happen in such a seamless way: the room is right, the environment is right, the timing is right, the duration of the agendas, right, the priorities of the agendas, right. All these very critical things they are communicating and doing and delivering very, very competently: they are trusted to ensure that the board can be effective.

RJ: What communications are typically the most difficult for a company secretary to master in relation to their communications with the board?

SC: I think probably the most difficult for most company secretaries is to ensure their full value is understood without trying to blow their own trumpet. How do you communicate your competence and your capability? You have to do it through delivery, you can't do it by standing on the soapbox saying, ‘look how clever I was.’ So, asking for promotion, being present so that you are not overlooked for promotion, being given the opportunities to take on a bigger remit, because you’re capable, without asking for it, because that's very, very difficult. How do you find yourself being able to have an empowered conversation in a way that people respect the fact that you can take on more? If you take on more, obviously, so you get promoted, and so you end up with all the accoutrements that come with promotion, which is a lot more responsibility, which if you're up for it, that's what you've got to do. So often, you've got to deliver ahead of being recognised. [You’ll need to find] out at what point in your career you need to ask to be recognised.

Every company is so different and so unique. Every industry offers different challenges. At what point do you need to move to enhance yourself? That in itself is a difficult conversation to have with your chairman, or with your CEO, as to why you are ‘jumping ship’ in their view, and you are moving on. There are points in your career where you need to move on, but you need to move on for the right reason, either because you'll never be recognised, or you need something bigger because you have grown beyond the current environment. While you're in a learning place, company secretaries are often known as the legacy knowledge of a business and often company secretaries in tenure exceed that of most directors. I was doing some research today for something I'm delivering on female chairs. The average duration on the FTSE of a female chairman is 3.3 years. Company secretaries, on average, are [in position] many, many fold that number of years and in some [organisations] go into the 15 to 20 plus [years]. But only at a [certain] point in their career will they stabilise in an environment. While they're climbing the ladder, they need to have those difficult conversations.

Other difficult conversations will be around coaching a chair or a CEO who is not stepping up to the plate as competently as they should or could. How do you have that conversation without creating your own exit resignation letter that you hadn't planned? [So] that you are respected for the advice that you are giving. I've seen a company secretary, ahead of a roadshow for a year-end announcement of the figures, ahead of the annual general meeting (AGM), actually coaching the chair, and the finance director and the CEO on what to say and what not to say. Just think of the power that individual has [over] the communication that is going out from that board, those three people, and the senior independent director (SID) sometimes is included in that [number]. How do you get a uniform message? That communication invariably comes directly out of the company secretary. Ahead of an AGM, who puts together the most awkward questions that the members or shareholders might ask? The company secretary, again, communicating and thinking ahead for the board so that they're not caught left-footed.

RJ: You talked about difficult conversations. How do you think a company secretary can help a chair to understand that something needs to change in the boardroom dynamics, and how could they support the chair in making that change?

SC: I think that's an influence role, rather than a challenge role. I think it is a journey of conversations. Say, for example, the chairman is coming up towards end of tenure, is starting to talk about long-term sustainability of the business. Talking about the entrepreneurial, creative leadership the company requires – both contained within the primary five principles of our UK Corporate Governance Code. You can start talking about the governance gap that this board has on those two elements, not talking to the individual, talking about the board. Then you can start talking about leadership of one of the committees, for example, where one of the chairs is very efficient and dynamic, and very energised, and they've got a new agenda, and they've turned things upside down, and they're really thinking creatively, and aspiring to that as being really positive for the organisation. And over time, blending it round to [saying], ‘if you did x, it would be more energising like so-and-so, rather than…’. The person’s either going to step up and you're going to get what you want. Or they're going to start to realise that time for refresh is important.

You need to bring the chair of the nominations committee along [with you on] that journey, which as I’ve said, should never be the board chair, which 86 per cent of the time is the board chair. This is a journey that all companies are going through, is to make that change [to not having the board chair also chairing the nominations committee]. In that case [where the chair also chairs the nominations committee], you have to turn to the senior independent director for support on that transition, which won't happen in one conversation, it will happen over time, when the person is, with dignity, treated in the way you would want to be treated when you know that journey to termination is coming. That you respect them in every way for everything they are, they will still feel personally vindicated, absolutely. You've got to really look after the human in the process. They've done a good job, they've served your board; respect them. How do you make that transition journey for them very valuable? Often it's to give them a consultancy role back on a specific capability they have, is a way of doing it, for example, if that's what the business needs.

RJ: In terms of understanding the human, as you mentioned, what skills do you think you need to be able to read the specific needs of individual people? For example, if a board member prefers technical details, or one that just wants the headlines, the overview of a particular issue, how do you get a sense for what will work best?

SC: One is you're a good listener, and you've worked it out because you understand a framework that you've chosen. For example, Myers-Briggs is one everybody knows, it's not the only one. Find a framework, assess yourself, whether you are the chair or whether you're the company secretary or CEO. In assessing yourself and understanding how the framework works, you can assess others without them actually doing the exercise; you can pretty much guess where they might fit. If more than that is required to get the collective to go on this journey of understanding each other, [then you can] all do the same assessment and use that as a heat-map way of learning to work with one another with a degree of facilitation from an expert in that field. That's one end of the journey.

The other end of the journey is literally just learning yourself what the different characters are. And then [considering], if you're the company secretary, how would you support the chair not have to go through that whole learning [process] you did because they don't have time? How do they get the learning outcomes based on the individuals they have round the table? [For example,if] you have ‘ordered chair’, this is the kind of personality we have, they're likely to want the detail. They're comfortable with numbers, they can work with graphs, but words are not necessarily their strength. Here, we've got somebody who is a governance specialist, very good with words, putting together a case. Then you've got somebody who's sales, who's looking at leading indicators and graphs are the most important, and where does the commission fit in, of course. It's [about] working out, what are the things that drive those individuals to listen and to engage? If the company secretary can go to the chair and say, ‘this topic that we've got on the board is about risk. Now we've got that specific person who has industry knowledge and a high alertness to risk. Why don't you ask them about X, Y, and Z? You might find we get some insights.’ It'll only be where there’s new directors, new nuances, new topics, new complexities, new elephants in the room, that us dolphins then need to make sure that we’re supporting everyone to communicate.

The company secretary can equally help the senior independent director to listen to the voice of the non-executive directors. Non-executive directors might not want to talk to the chairman, they might not want to talk to the company secretary. But they're very happy to talk to the senior independent director, who, if chosen correctly by the nominations committee, has the respect of the chair, and is able to then have that adult conversation on behalf of the collective.

These are all the communication skills that we, as people around the table, can apply without having to head-butt.

RJ: Do you think there's any tricks that can be deployed to help an individual like the company secretary build trust amongst their fellow board members?

SC: I would say the most important lesson for them to take on board is [to consider], how does the other person work? How are they thinking, what's important to them? What are their communication skills? Are they numbers people? are they colour people? are they smell people or are they touch people? Somebody says, ‘I heard something’. Somebody says, ‘I sense something’. If you say to somebody, ‘I heard it’ and they're a sensing person, they've missed what you've said, believe it or not. It's [about] understanding what hooks that individual has, that you can hook on to, that they will hear, listen, respond to. Then use that language to them so they are hearing, seeing, feeling a mirror to them. That will build the trust. So you, as the company secretary, is the chameleon, and you are being a different colour to each poor director because you are being them, so they can trust you. However odd that sounds, we actually do that all the time. We will mimic words that somebody has just used back to them. We do it naturally; we are chameleons. But if you do it consciously, as a company secretary, you will manage to match all the people you're having to deal with not just a handful of the more obvious [people].

RJ: Do you think you need to balance that with being authentic?

SC: Absolutely! The most important thing we're dealing with here is communicating and being trusted and listening. What we're not trying to be is somebody else, because if we're trying to be something else, we will definitely not come across as authentic and we will never be trusted. So, you are working within a framework that is you. But you are listening to their hooks and their triggers and their focal point, that doesn't mean you are being somebody different. You're changing the terminology you might use or the approach [you might take]. So, if you were a fast-thinking person, I'd tell you very quickly – step 1234. And you'd say, ‘great, I get it’. Next person is a reflective System 2 thinker. And we will talk about a topic, and we'll discuss it, and we'll discuss it, and we'll think about it. And maybe even only tomorrow, or a week later, will we take that conversation to the next level, that's still being very authentic. But I've worked out how that person can absorb the four stages of this conversation. And it may take a week, it may take four minutes.

RJ: It's more about your mode of delivery rather than the message itself.

SC: You're not trying to change your personality, you're not trying to create a bias towards them, an influence that's inappropriate. We never ever want to be inappropriate in the way we influence people. Because that's how the mafia work and all these other kinds of negative bodies. What we're doing is, we're doing it in an authentic for-good manner, and always retaining who we are as an individual. It's a very valuable question that you ask, because I think [for] a lot of people, it's difficult to understand the kinds of things we've talked about. Because it really is important to stay in your own shoes.

RJ: Do you think this particular skill set that we've talked about – being able to build trust while remaining authentic – is particularly important when it comes to the role of company secretaries as being a keeper of secrets, the confidante? Does it help them to create the safe environment for colleagues so that they have the confidence to discuss everything with them?

SC: Yes, it is so, so, so critical. If you can imagine that seesaw again, they're sitting in the seesaw where they're not moving, they're the consistent party to everything, doesn't matter what the seesaw is doing. As the good and the bad and the information is flowing, so they stay stable, they receive the information, and they deal with the information, and they manage the individual who shared the information with them in a respectful, empowered way so the person feels they've done the right thing, which is really, really critical. It sounds really obvious, but people will forget that bit. It's really important to recognise the value of the risk the individual has taken to share either the fact that they are not in a wellbeing space, or that they've heard information that really is putting the company at reputational risk if something's not done about it. [That’s] two ends of a spectrum: one is very personal and one is very relevant to the future perception and profitability and sustainability of the company. Others might come and share personal information about their colleagues that's got nothing to do with the business and should never be shared and stays with the company secretary and never gets outside that secrets box. If it's burning that individual up, they need to go somewhere to share it knowing it won't go any further and that it's safe off their shoulders, because it was burning them up, and let somebody else decide how to deal with that kind of information. So it's not the tattletaling; it's if you can't manage that secret, then you have to share it. Invariably, the only person you can share it with safely is the company secretary.

RJ: In that context, is there ever a time though when the company secretary needs to speak up on a subject or a problem that they feel is affecting the effectiveness of the board?

SC: I have seen it where it's needed to be done. It's not often a hand-grenade reality that’s going to blow up if they don't [speak up], usually it's a nuanced aspect that they need to manage rather than share the secret. But sometimes if you've got a really obtuse individual in terms of their behaviour, or objective, or goal, sometimes the company secretary needs to speak up and say to the chairman, for example, this person, whatever we try, will never fit into this board and therefore we will never be effective until we make the difficult decision that somebody's got to move on. That is probably one of the most awful conversations a company secretary needs to have because they put themselves at risk. They are the messenger of the news and therefore perceived to be the only one that thinks that way, which is never the case. It's very difficult being the messenger because you get shot down. It's making sure that [the company secretary] can have that relationship of trust with the chair, senior independent director, CEO, all three they need to build that relationship of trust [with so] that they can share the important information that is mission critical to the business, or to address the difficult conversation that everyone else is avoiding. So once again, we’re coming back to that wisdom and knowledge of communication that we see within a dolphin that they know what's right. I really call on chairs to draw on that skill.

RJ: What do you think are some of the common facets of great business leaders that, when you're doing the exercise of assessing whether this person will be good for the business, that you could be looking for and then translating across the board?

SC: The first word that comes to me is humility. Self-recognition. Do I know who I am and what I'm capable of? Am I learner, can I learn? Can I work within a team without trying to bully, lead, overpower? Will that person sit within a team as a link in the chain, without always having to be the most important person? Is their knowledge aligned? But the most important is: has the person got the EQ, the IQ? There are various, I talk about ten quotients, but we won't try and go through all ten now! One of the ones that I talk about is: have they got an aligned set of morals? Is their moral compass aligned to the business? And another one that's really important is their political quotient. Can they fit in to this political environment and survive and flourish but equally support the team to be better than it was before they joined?

RJ: Talking of politics, how would a company secretary themselves learn to navigate boardroom politics?

SC: I think the analogy of walking on eggshells might be something we both align to immediately! I think here the comment we've talked about a little bit earlier, is being authentic to oneself, to being able to communicate in a language that the other person can understand. If you could do those two things, as a company secretary: be the dolphin, competent communicator that people will respect and listen [to], and that's all you're looking for, to actually navigate. Also, at the same time, know what other people's political agendas are, so that you can navigate within them. You can't do that in a vacuum. You have to do it [with] knowledge of the other agendas that are being played. It's up to the executive, if they're looking to get an outcome from their board, is to work out how not to press the wrong triggers, how not to derail the conversation.

RJ: Do you think it's possible to navigate politics without engaging in them?

SC: Yes, I do think you can. Very much so because as a company secretary, and I'm using this as the first role to describe, as the company secretary you have one mission and that's the effectiveness of the organisation, its long-term sustainability. Very few company secretaries have personal agendas, it's just not in their remit other than to improve the governance and to improve the effectiveness. But they don't have agendas in the same way a finance person, a CEO, or a chair might have. Because they are outside of the board as well, they are not a board director, so they don't have that sort of position, that chair to protect, they can be a lot more authentic immediately. So, therefore, their ability to navigate everybody else's chairs is great because you don't have a chair to move around, you can walk, you can walk between them. It creates a fluidity and an engagement of being able to speak to everybody very quickly and easily, because that's the role they can do. They can work out where the common view is, and then deal with that common view or particularly a outlier, and be able to handle them quite easily. I think company secretaries can very quickly learn to navigate in a positive way, without any problem whatsoever. They have to have the right DNA themselves first, otherwise, you're not going to get anywhere.

RJ: Thinking about what their DNA is, how do you think a company secretary can understand their own level of empathy, as something that might help them to be effective, as well as that of the board as a whole?

SC: The best way to find out how effective you are being is to ask somebody, and that's the most difficult thing, we don't like doing that. But it's wonderful and very empowering, to ask the directors, one-on-one in private conversations where you don't feel victimised in any way, is to say, how good am I? And how could I be better? And do I engage with you in the best way you want me to? That is the best way to find out how well you're doing.

On the other side of the fence, you are the best way to judge the collective board and the individual board members the other way around, because you can witness them all in equal in the way they are contributing towards the common cause. [Company secretaries] can very effectively be the judge of the degree of empathy that the board has. To say to somebody, you're a bad communicator, is not necessarily the most empathetic way of discussing the conversation. A company secretary could manage that by saying, if we addressed a certain circumstance, and we ask these three questions, we'd probably get a better outcome in terms of what we want to learn, or what we want to understand or what assumptions they might be making as an executive. So instead of saying, ‘you need to be empathetic, you need to be caring, you need to have all the soft skills’, because a whole bunch of people on this planet will go, urgh, that's pink fluffy stuff, I don't want anything to do with it. Tell them what to ask. Tell them the kind of questions that will work. Now write them down, and they will use them and all of a sudden it will become second nature and they will have learnt to apply empathy, not without you telling them that's what they're doing.

RJ: In terms of that dolphin skillset, or ability, are there any other key traits there that are really important to think about in terms of boardroom effectiveness?

SC: The one that comes to mind, as you ask that is, if I think of a dolphin, you think of kindness, you think of warmth, you think of gentleness, you think of big, but caring. I would say with that communication comes the humanity, the people skills, the making people feel safe, looking after people, nurturing them. The growth of the human being, which is something COVID has brought for us, the pandemic has allowed us to talk about humans, humans’ needs, our needs, other people's needs, the dual engagement of two people's requirements. I think that listening to the human talking behind the facts, and supporting the human that exists behind the bravado, behind the role, so that the person is safe, that the person is cared for and feels respected. Praise. It's so cheap to give. And I didn't mean it the way that sounded it. It is something that doesn't cost us money. But it costs us awareness, to notice it, and a moment's focus to deliver it. If we can do that, I think that kindness, empathy, respect for the human being that are filling the roles around us, I think we will be a much better communicator and a much better dolphin.

RJ: Thank you very much, Sharon. I think that's really interesting to think about this in the context of the pandemic, because I think you're right, that there is a greater willingness to think about the human being that is in the role and the challenges that they face in a broader context, and how all of that feeds into their effectiveness in their role. It's been a really interesting discussion about how understanding that better can help the company secretary to allow the board to be the most effective that it can be. So thank you very much for your insights.

SC: Thank you very much. That was a fantastic summary, Rachael, I couldn't do better. Thank you. That’s absolutely, so spot on the money.

A dolphin

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