The Secret to a High-Performing Board of Directors

By: Dr. Jennifer Card


I am a leadership psychologist whose practice is devoted to helping executives, partnerships, management teams and boards of directors to achieve their full potential and optimal functionality. Having served on several boards for the past 20 years, I have experienced boards both at their best and at their worst. When functioning at their best, collaboration and constructive discussion felt effortless. When functioning at their worst, the boards were weighed down with internal conflict, mistrust and resolutions — only to have more meetings.

What was the difference? What makes one board function well and not another?

From my professional perspective, the simple answer — although not such a simple resolution — is that boards who click are boards that function as a team not just as a group. It is important to make a fundamental distinction between them.

A group is a collection of people who may or may not be working on the same task or towards the same objective, and who don’t all depend or rely on each other. However, a team is a collection of people who all share the same task and mission, and who strive towards a common outcome. A team functions best when its members rely on the contributions and abilities of each other. A board of directors, while populated with seasoned experts, operates at its best when it functions as a team and not as merely a group.

Groups don’t have synergy; teams do. Teams are highly productive and efficient; groups are not.

That distinction is important because if board members engage only as a group, and don’t engage as a team, they will be less effective, more prone to conflict, have competing priorities, and be more focused on the internal dynamics rather than the success of the overall mission. In board meetings that are conducted as team endeavours, the well-functioning whole is much greater than the mere sum of the individual directors.

The challenge with every corporate board is that the enterprise demands teamwork, while the independence and unique contributions of each director is also essential. A frequent mission of my practice focuses on how to promote and encourage vital independence within a team of directors. And to that end, there are two simple undertakings that I recommend.

First, even at the executive level, board members still need to be onboarded robustly, and socialised into a philosophy of how board members need to collaborate and work together. Research has established that such onboarding practices can be an essential tool for cultivating a collegial and highly functioning team.

Second, there are training exercises, programmes and facilitations that foster director team building, collaboration and the expression of independent ideas — the focus of which is on cultivating psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999). The psychological safety of the team, experienced by every director, occurs where the contributions of each director are requested and respected, and directors are neither ostracised, criticised nor embarrassed for sharing relevant ideas, questions, concerns, including mistakes. Psychological safety requires courage and vulnerability of each member, but also it requires a feeling of having the authority to speak up in a non-intimidating atmosphere…in fact, the team expects everyone to speak up …in a respectful and self-regulated manner.

Psychological safety is not a binary circumstance, in that a team either has it or does not have it. Instead, that circumstance exists more as a continuum. The board’s level of experienced psychological safety can be cultivated with intentional teaming initiatives such as self (and other) awareness training and exercises.

One of the most critical duties of a board of directors is to provide experienced oversight and guidance concerning the executive management and material operations of the enterprise. Many of those management and operational activities can be extremely complex, and some of the challenges for that board mandate often include information saturation, securing specialised expert advice, and complex risk management assessments. Therefore, a board of directors must act as a team to collaborate towards the institutional digestion, synthesis, prioritisation and creative problem-solving in order to make sound and prudent judgments in the best interests of the enterprise.

The scaffolding of a highly performing board is the psychological safety that allows the board to truly operate as a team and not merely a group. Psychological safety is an essential ingredient to both avoid groupthink and to ensure the whole of the board is much greater than the sum of its constituent directors.

  • Jennifer Card, PsyD, MSc, is the founder of EQ@HQ, and works with executives, executive teams and boards of directors to help cultivate psychological safety, constructive communication through self (and other) awareness, and to increase effective conflict management by ensuring that all team members are onboarded thoroughly through facilitated meetings and strategic off-site sessions