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For CXOs

Giving Difficult Feedback and Making Your Voice Heard

Startup Boards for CXO’s Series: Post 10 of 11

Two common communication challenges that board members face, particularly first-time board members, are making sure their voice is heard and giving difficult feedback.

Your ability to make sure your voice is heard during a board meeting has a lot to do with your own communication preferences and style, but it is also inversely proportional to the number of people on the board. With three people on the board you should have no problem making any point, but with five, six, or seven, you may find that speaking time is at a premium. It also depends on the nature of the board itself and if you find yourself in a room stacked with ego-laden people demanding to be in the spotlight you might be constrained. You may also be acutely aware that you’re the new person to the group, or that you’re the first woman, the first person of color, the first of anything, which may make you feel a little intimidated. I mentioned in an earlier post that if you’re serving on a board, you’ve been chosen to be there for a reason and your views are as important as anyone else’s so it’s crucial, that you make your voice heard.

Hopefully your board’s CEO or Chairman or lead director is a skilled meeting facilitator who makes sure to call on every director to speak in discussions and who also knows how to read a room and ready body language to draw comments out of directors. But if not, here are a few suggestions for making your voice heard:

  • Communicate issues in advance. No one loves to be surprised, so if you have a tough issue you want to raise at a board meeting, mention it ahead of time to the CEO. It’s a good way to set an intention ahead of time and be clear that there are issues about which you want to weigh in.
  • Be direct. It’s ok to interrupt, especially if the group is moving on from a topic you wish to address. “I haven’t had a chance to address the situation yet.”
  • Be polite. Go back to your elementary school days and raise your hand and keep it raised until you’re given a chance to speak (or on a Zoom call, use the Chat function). I promise you, even the most scattered or egocentric meeting leader person cannot ignore a raised hand forever!
  • Be true to your style. I’ve had every kind of board member stylistically over the years. Some express an opinion on everything. Some are more introverted and hold back their comments until a discussion is well underway and they have had a chance to hear from others. Some are incredibly colorful with their use of language and metaphors. It doesn’t really matter what style you pick – just pick one that is comfortable and natural to you.
  • Find a communication niche and stick to it. One of my most effective board members at Return Path, former Oracle CFO Jeff Epstein, played a very specific role in our board discussions. While he would on occasion have a comment or express an opinion in the middle of a debate, he almost always provided the last word in a debate by saying “let me summarize what I’ve heard” and trying to crystallize or distill the board’s discussion, recommendation, or the next action for the group. Jeff would invariably inject some of his own point of view into that summary, too, but I could always count on him to play that role. I had other directors with other niches, too – “from the product perspective,” or “first to comment,” and the like.
  • Engage in between meetings. There are certainly times I’ve seen topics come up that are then followed up 1-to-1 or individually between a CEO and a board member. That can be a helpful way to dig into something at a deeper level without eating up valuable board meeting time, and it is a good way to continue building rapport and trust with your CEO.
  • Ask for feedback. After board meetings, especially your first few, ask your CEO, board buddy, and even other directors for micro feedback on your participation. “Was that line of questioning helpful?” “Was that the kind of discussion you wanted to have with the group?” “What else didn’t we have a chance to cover?” Of course, once you ask for feedback…you have to be willing to learn from it.

The second common challenge is in giving difficult advice, either to the CEO, to the other board members, to the executive team, or other people in a board meeting. My preferred technique, to borrow from some communication training we did years ago is to favor inquiry over advocacy. That means instead of jumping in with your feedback – “Well, I think…” – start by asking questions and getting the other party to speak first. “What do you think about…” or “Have you ever considered…” is often a much better way of broaching a tricky topic.

Related to this is the criticality of using data to frame the conversation. Also borrowed from this training was a great lesson from the Ladder of Inference framework, that data provides an objective sense of the reality of the situation and in many cases people are not aware of the current situation, of how they’re perceived, of how their words or actions might impact others. For example, I have a friend whose first job out of college was as a professor and one day after class a student came up and said, “you did pretty good today.” And the next sentence by the student was, “you only said ‘um’ 93 times today.” While that’s probably not what anyone wants to hear, it was helpful information! By starting the feedback with a set of data that can create a common understanding of the situation, the actual feedback can be much more natural to take in.

A final technique I’ve found to be helpful in raising a difficult topic is to ask the person, “Are you open to hearing something?” This is very different from the more direct and common approach of, “We need to talk.” By asking someone if they’re open to hearing something you’re giving them a choice, you’re giving them control, and the result is much better than telling someone you need to “talk.” They might say “no” or “not now,” but most times they’ll be ready to hear what you have to say in the moment. It’s interesting how asking someone if they’re open to hearing something is like inviting them, and I’ve found that by framing your conversation in this way you’ll get a greater willingness from people to have that conversation, rather than put up walls and barriers.

As a board member there may be situations where you’ll think,” I’m not sure this is the responsibility of the board,” or you might think, “I’m not the CEO so I’m just going to let this play out”. If you’re thinking that you’re probably not the only person in the room having those thoughts, I believe that it is worth raising concerns and that the role of a board member is to give advice or feedback that is difficult to hear. Very few things in life are self-correct. Instead, I’d approach difficult conversations by using an “open” and inviting approach rather than lecture or ignore the situation. And I know that data–even anecdotal–can be helpful to people in a lot of situations.

Above all else, you should model the behavior you’d like to see in other people. Don’t speak over others, don’t cut people off, don’t repeat exactly what others have said with only a minor modification or your own personal flair. Respect the people in the room, give them your full attention, and you’ll get the same in return.

-Matt Blumberg, July 13, 2021.