Feb 18, 2024 Nurole logo
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Collective intelligence: the remits, thinking and communication styles that define the most valuable boards, with Jennifer Sundberg

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Jennifer on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

As CEO of Board Intelligence, Jennifer Sundberg has seen what works and what doesn’t across thousands of boards - insights crystallised in her recent book Collective Intelligence. Listen to her conversation with Nurole CEO Oliver Cummings to hear her answers to:

  • Do boards still matter? (0:46)
  • How can we determine which decisions need to be made by the board? (2:16)
  • How can boards measure their organisation’s collective intelligence? (5:33)
  • What does critical thinking look like in board papers? (7:27)
  • How can board members encourage execs to do more critical thinking? (8:58)
  • Have you noticed any recurring rituals across the highest-performing boards you see? (16:17)
  • How can boards identify the most important questions they need answered? (18:13)
  • How do the best boards balance thinking in and outside of the boardroom? (19:49)
  • What are the respective roles of execs and non-execs in developing strategy? (22:17)
  • How do you see the ideal Chair-CEO-NED dynamic? (27:42)
  • What are the most common mistakes boards make with communication? (29:00)
  • Does communication really matter? (31:13)
  • What should board members take from your final chapter, “when it all goes wrong?” (34:08)
  • How can boards inoculate themselves against belief perseverance? (35:58)
  • Do you feel like you’ve got it right with your own board? (37:23) And
  • ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡(39:00) 

*This is an AI-generated transcript and will contain inaccuracies*

Anand Aithal 


Jen Sundberg 


Oliver Cummings: Hello and welcome to another episode of Enter the Boardroom with Neural the Business podcast that brings the boardroom to you.

I'm your host, Oliver Cummings, CEO of Neurol, the board search specialist and market leader bringing science to the art of board hiring. 

I wanted to take a moment before we start to say thank you. For all the support and positive feedback on the podcast, one recent comment from at yo via Gill stood out, which highlighted finding a mentor in Enter the Boardroom. 

If anyone listening is interested in finding a traditional in-person, mentor, do consider joining the neural board community, which you can find@community.new.com.

For just 29 a month, we have created a space where you can get matched with a mentor, as well as learn, grow your board network, and tap into the hive mind of over 60, 000 board members in real time.

Today's guest, Jennifer Sundberg, is co CEO of Board Intelligence, a board management [00:01:00] software and advisory company she co founded with Pippa Begg in 2009. Over 3, 000 companies and 40, 000 directors use their products in boardrooms around the world.

Holding an MA in Classics and Management Studies from the University of Cambridge, Jennifer is co author of Collective Intelligence, How to Build a Business That's Smarter Than You, featured as an FT book of the month. Jennifer, a huge welcome and thanks so much for joining us today. 

Jen Sundberg: Thank you for having me.

Oliver Cummings: I want to get straight in there with a question for you, which is, do boards still matter? 

Jen Sundberg: Power corrupts. Power doesn't just corrupt. Too much power concentrated in any one person or group makes you stupid. Born out throughout history, right? From Icarus to modern day examples like Sam Bankman. Fried? 

Eventually, too much power, you fly too close to the sun. And boards are a check and balance. And I think pretty vital check and balance. I think for any management team to [00:02:00] perform well in the long run. They need to subject themselves to that healthy check and balance scrutiny challenge.

But there is a reason why the book we have just published is called Collective Intelligence and not Board Intelligence. And that's because whilst I do believe that boards still matter, absolutely, for those reasons I just shared, I don't think it stops there. 

When we scan across our customer base, it became quite apparent that our most successful clients were the ones whose decision making center of gravity was as far away from the bottom as possible. If all of the really important decisions in your organization have to roll up to your board.

Then in this day and age, where it's not the big that eat the small, it's the fast that eat the slow, you're just not going to move fast enough. And so to succeed as an organization, yes, I believe the board matters. Yes, I believe you do need a board that is capable of operating well at full pelt. But you also need to empower everyone at every level of your organization to think well and take smart decisions.

Oliver Cummings: Can you [00:03:00] unpack that for me a little bit more in practical details? Because I guess on the one hand, what I'm hearing you say is you need everyone to be fully empowered at the individual level and those closest to the coalface. And on the other hand, you're saying actually the board does matter. So where does that line get drawn?

Jen Sundberg: I suppose a lot of organizations rely on things like the sum of the quantum of money at stake, which is often a pretty poor measure of whether the board is capable of adding value or even scrutinizing the decision, right?

But it's almost the least bad way of doing it. It's it's a. I suppose it's a measure of the risk at stake of a poor decision. But I think more time spent on that, spent on working out, have we got that line right? 

Are there better, more meaningful ways of determining when the decision needs to be tabled in the board? Or whether the board simply needs to be assured that the decision has been taken in the right way. A lot of [00:04:00] the time the solution is seen as creating lots of committees, right?

They perceive there to be too much in the board agenda. So they spin it out into lots of either start and finish groups or, or long standing committees. But I think the better path is to build an operating model where you do have confidence in the quality of the thinking capability and the rigor of the senior leadership team and the many, many rungs below.

So a good example would be actually Timpsons. So John Timpson, we, we pitched to him once very unsuccessfully. He came into our office and he let us get about five slides into our, deck, setting out how we could help him to build a stronger, better board before he held his hand up like he was trying to stop traffic.

And he said, I don't need a better board. I don't need a stronger board. The most important decisions in my business are not made in my boardroom, they're made on the shop floor. And he's a very firm advocate that the people who are closest to the customer. Closest to the data points around which you can formulate a decision and closest to the group who they most need to impact [00:05:00] that they are the people who should take as many decisions as possible and be empowered by every level of management above them.

So he subscribes to what he describes as a upside down management, where it is the job of every level of the management team to support the neighbor though, empower, enable upskill.

Oliver Cummings: Do you think that varies depending on the business type, because for a business like Timson's that makes a lot of sense to me, but I could think of other businesses, maybe a construction.

Jen Sundberg: Yeah, or pharmaceuticals, you know, you don't want people on the pharmaceutical factory floor just tinkering with the formulation, right? No, for sure. And I think, this pays back to what we were discussing just before the podcast began about overly simplistic application of an extreme position, right, which would not advocate.

The principle though of everybody at every level being empowered to use their brain does follow. I think what systems you need around checks and balances around that and around how and when decisions are approved and actioned. Because I suppose the point of collective intelligence is not the idea that everyone individually should act as a series [00:06:00] of individual autocrats.

It is actually the idea that they should come together and challenge and critique one another's thinking to make it stronger and build that capability as much as the thinking power is important, the forums and the facility to critique and challenge one another is also equally part of this.

Oliver Cummings: If I'm a board member listening to this, I can see a light's just gone off in my head thinking, ooh, how are we doing? As an organization with our collective intelligence, and I'm curious to know whether you have a way of assessing when you go into a new board and you start sort of helping them thinking these things through with how to assess where they are and then how to track their progress. 

Jen Sundberg: We often point out that the three core characteristics of an organization that's set up well for collective intelligence are the facility to think critically, communicate that critical thinking well. Otherwise the fruits of that thinking just wither on the vine. And the third one is focus, the ability to align and focus all of that great thinking power around a common goal.

And [00:07:00] a really good. Tell or litmus test as to the presence of these three characteristics. It's often the board deck, the board pack. It's the canary in the coal mine. So if you're a board director, trying to get a sense and try to take the temperature of your organization, which may be a large multinational spread out all around the world, pretty difficult task. But if your board papers do not surface critical thinking.

If your board papers are a great big dump of backward looking information, not insight, not the why, the so what, the now what, then you might want to question whether That critical thinking skill is missing. 

If the information is poorly communicated, again, vast tome of dry, stodgy prose, hard to, hard to wade through, again, you might want to question whether that's indicative of the communication skills that may be missing.

And if it's not clear what the focus is, if it's not clear, having read your board papers cover to cover, if it's not clear what really matters right now, what the critical issues are and what the goals are and the objectives, if that's not coming through clearly, [00:08:00] then again, it's a pretty good smoke signal that the management team are not clear themselves on what that focus is.

Oliver Cummings: Can you bring to life what exactly that means critical thinking in the context of a board paper? What would be a case which would clearly illustrate for you that that had happened?

Jen Sundberg: So there's sorts of things that would would imply the absence of critical thinking. So it would be you read a proposal a business case presented to you and There are critical gaps in the case that's presented. 

So for instance, somebody has set out here's my recommendation. But they haven't presented the options. They've set out what all the benefits of supporting their course of action would be but they haven't articulated the risks and how they propose to mitigate them.

So basically one of the things we look for is, is it, is it rigorous? Does it cover all the critical bases? Does it present information or does it pull out the why, the so what, the now what? Does it really get to the nub of the issue? 

Oliver Cummings: Can you give me an example of something where, that doesn't have the why and then what? The why would be

Jen Sundberg: A lot of [00:09:00] board papers, they'll fall into two camps. You'll have your proposals and your business cases, but then you'll have quite a lot of reports that speak to the past and performance to date.

In those, you know, there's often a lot of information being shared, right? A lot of data a lot of stuff that has happened between the period when the board last convened and today. 

But again that information which might set out, you know you know, sales targets were off by five percent. Well, first of all Is that material? Secondly, why? You know, what was it within the business that, that didn't perform as planned?

Next up, you know, so what, does it mean we're going to miss our target for the year? Or does it mean, you know, we're quite likely to make that up? And, and finally, now what, what's the action we propose in response?

Oliver Cummings: Got it. And if you identify this as a board member, how do you go about changing that

Jen Sundberg: einstein once said if I had an hour to solve a problem I would spend the first 55 minutes working out the question at the heart of it because once I figured out the question I can answer it in five minutes. Questions are [00:10:00] the spark and the fuel of curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, behind pretty much every discovery or invention lies a question that no one else thought to ask.

So building that habit. of asking more and better questions in the management team is the device through which we trigger critical thinking. The good news is we're all born questioners, right? You know, small children apparently ask over 100 questions a day. But by the time we make it to the workplace, by the time we emerge from our formal education system, it's all been beaten out of us.

And we live in a society that places value on knowing the answers. not on working out the question that needs to be asked in the first place. So a lot of what we're doing is helping to relearn questioning habit and to get our questioning mojo back and once you've done that, once you build that culture and habit of questioning, you can unleash this power of critical thinking, and I suppose, as with any change management it's easy to say, but how do you make it stick, right?

How do you get people to do it? And like any [00:11:00] such change, you need to make it easy to do and hard to avoid. We hijack the ritual of reporting, whether it's reporting up to your main board, whether it's reporting to a management quarterly business review, putting together the annual plan for the year, the year ahead, all of those set piece activities, calendarized activities that are already in everybody's calendars through the year. We turn The preparation for those set piece activities into the place for questioning and deep critical thinking. 

Oliver Cummings: So if I've understood you create a bit of a framework for those processes that means people can't avoid asking those questions and going through that critical thinking. 

Jen Sundberg: Exactly to help get the culture embedded, to help get the habit normalized, we often build out sets of questions that are universally effective to make it easy to get started. 

The [00:12:00] most powerful questions, almost always the simplest ones. So questions like, what are we trying to achieve? What's going well, what's not, what are the risks and opportunities on the horizon? And where does this leave us?

What to stop doing, starting or do differently? And what's my confidence in achieving our goals and throughout all of that, why so what now what, you know, And to build that habit of asking oneself those questions, we often recommend sets of questions which we call QDI plays, question driven insight plays.

So that management can pick up one of these question sets, get familiar, get into the habit of interrogating themselves. And then over time you can iterate around them, identifying other questions that you think are really important that need to be asked right now. Once you've built that foundation and that, that normalized the idea of questioning.

Oliver Cummings: You make it sound so easy. Does anyone who implements this still struggle and still get it wrong?

Jen Sundberg: Oh, I think the struggle is the point. It is hard. [00:13:00] It is easy to ask the question. It's often hard to get to the nub of the answer. And when I say it's easy to ask the question, it's, it's you know, not that people do naturally, they don't, right?

Naturally management reports are a function of grab all the data available, shove it in a report, serve it up, right? This idea that you spend time as a management team member critiquing yourself with the challenging questions is not. It's not what a lot of people are in the habit of doing, but yeah, asking the question is sometimes easy, but getting to the nub of it takes time.

But when you look at projects or business plans that succeed, it's that struggle is part of the value. So very much an advocate of, of think slow, act fast. Once you, you know, the more time you invest in the thinking upfront, understanding. You know, the nub of the issue that you're grappling with, thinking more deeply about second and third order consequences of your actions, the greater the chances that you're going to succeed in execution.

So whilst I think it is. You know, engaging our, the gray matter that [00:14:00] might otherwise have been in a bit dormant it, it can feel quite hard like any workout, any mental workout, like a physical one. But it will ultimately help you go further faster.

Oliver Cummings: I can think of some CEOs I've worked with as a board member who push back on that sort of approach and they'd say, look, we just wanna get on with it.

You're just adding friction to what we're doing. And I guess they probably would think of themselves as more of the biologists in the sort of Matthew Syed physicists versus biologists, you know, physicists design things from first principles, biologists just chuck stuff at the wall and see an A B test and iterate.

And sometimes one approach works better than the other. To your point earlier of You know, everything, you know, in moderation is this one that does require balance? Or do you think actually this is one where, without question, people need to put in that that preparation that 95 percent of the time in the understanding the issue before actually executing. 

Jen Sundberg: I suppose you could reframe that as almost the [00:15:00] potential for analysis paralysis and overthinking and there's a strong case for any bias to action and I remember a client of mine once saying he was a Chairman of many city organizations, but he'd been a military commander before his professional city career.

He said, if you're trying to cross a bog, don't stop, keep moving, and when you hit a crisis in business, it can be very tempting to put it out to analysis and do the research and run over the options. But by the time you come up for it, you're basically sunk. So sometimes you need to just act right.

I buy that I get that. However, I think in the modern working world, most of us are probably more guilty of being busy fools. Again, it's about that where that pendulum sits, right? And I think an awful lot of professional lives spent running from pillar to post From one board meeting to the next, barely a minute to stop and think.

And a great illustration of this in we shared the story in the book of Frank Gary and his successful project at building the Bill Bow Museum in Spain. And he [00:16:00] speaks to the success of that project, which was delivered on time on budget and massively outperformed the intended benefits, which is pretty unheard of for any large infrastructure project, as we all know, and he credits a lot of his success with spending longer.

than anyone else in his profession on grappling with why this project was being commissioned in the first place, really trying to get under the skin of it to establish the correct brief, which was not the brief he was originally presented with, and spending a lot longer on getting the plans together before they broke ground and started executing.

And he compares and contrasts that to the story of the Sydney Opera House, where apparently Building works began when the designs were described by somebody as being little more than a doodle. But there was such a bias for action and such a sense that if we're not breaking ground, we're not really doing anything. And that can be your undoing. But I guess to your point, it's, it's a balance of the extremes. I think generally we are too far on the other end of the spectrum these days.

Oliver Cummings: I love that example that you [00:17:00] gave of Frank Gehry in the book and you talked about how it was 0. 5 percent or the 0. 5 percent of the sort of 60, 000 public projects actually get completed on time and on budget.

You talked about The importance of having the right people on the board, having the right information surface through the right board papers and the right rituals. I'm obsessed about rituals at the moment, inspired by Reid Hoffman, who identified eight that he saw common to all the best boards that he worked with.

Are there any that stand out for you? There are a couple actually I picked up from the book that I love, one of which was Bringing together the divergent topics and bringing together the convergent topics and making sure you weren't switching between the two so that you're allowed people's train of thinking to stay in the flow and not have the task switching costs, which is brilliant.

But what are the rituals that stand out for you of the highest performing boards that you see?

Jen Sundberg: Yeah. And that point by the way, about the divergent and convergent is very much back to these two different jobs of supervising [00:18:00] and steering, supervising being critiquing, needling, challenging management and that steering role being much more expansive thinking and much more creative, much more linking arms with management.

And they are kind of oil and water trying to intersperse one agenda item of the one sort with another agenda item of the other sort is a really challenging switching role. So better to separate them into two separate meetings on two separate days. But if you can't, at least have a good break between the two groups.

Another one would be frame every agenda item around the question at the heart of it that you want to have a conversation about. And sometimes again, that's hard. It's quite hard to work out what is the central question here that we want to discuss. with the board. But until you've figured that out, you haven't really figured out what you need from the information flow to support it.

Because if you're not sure what conversation that paper is supposed to enable, then how can you give an appropriate brief to the person you're asking to prepare the paper? 

Oliver Cummings: How do the best boards get to those questions? My experience as a CEO is sometimes it could be quite [00:19:00] difficult doing it on your own in isolation, and I really benefit from being able to kick ideas and doing it intuitively and often we'll have a sort of a one, two day session.

At the end of that, we finally figured out what it was that we should be talking about. And then we have to have another sort of one, two day session later on to actually tackle that. But what do you see the best boards doing? 

Jen Sundberg: There will be standing items, but again, what's the critical question at the heart of them, which might be what we need to stop doing, start doing or do differently.

There can be some questions that persist month at meeting to meeting and then others where it is a unique situation that's coming to the board and you spend time on that. 

It's probably one of the biggest causes of wasted time in management, spent drafting a paper, surfacing that draft to say the sponsor. The sponsor reads the paper and says, no, no, no, this is all wrong. 

And it's not that it's a bad paper. It's just answering the wrong questions. But no one, still no question is articulated. They're just told it's completely wrong. And again, something vague is articulated as a try again. So the management goes back, tries again, drafts another paper.

He serves it up to the sponsor who [00:20:00] again, isn't, isn't happy with it, but can't quite put their finger on why. And we've done various studies looking at the hidden cost of board reporting and the many, many rounds of iteration that go on beneath the surface is using up a lot of very senior management time trying to get to the information that's needed for the board.

Much better to spend a little bit longer at board level with management, agreeing what the central question or questions are. That is then a meaningful brief that management can then take away and engage in.

Oliver Cummings: Have you got a good way for determining how to strike that balance? Because sometimes there's nothing worse than turning up at a board meeting where someone hasn't already done some of the pre thinking. And ideally you do have a pre read to facilitate and stimulate the discussion that happens. So it feels like you need to strike a balance. How? Do the best boards do that? 

Jen Sundberg: Yeah, I would say that actually another ritual is provide your board with a a short briefing document in advance. Don't waste board time with PowerPoint presentations.[00:21:00] 

Not only is it a poor use of the time of the people you've got gathered together in the room, but you're also at risk of being swayed by the design skills or the charismatic presentation skills of the person delivering it. 

Whereas that pre briefing. needs to be self explanatory, and the quality of the thinking needs to stand on its own two feet, or not. So we'd strongly advocate that in advance. But you're right, there is a conversation to be had before the paper is drafted, to get to the number of what the brief is. And then if that paper is well put together, it will stimulate a much higher quality of conversation in the boardroom. 

And I suppose the most important ritual of all, The board meeting, in our view, isn't something that happens in the board meeting at all. It is the discipline it presents to management of engaging in and taking on that thinking challenge. It's the discipline imposed on management of needing to spend time engaging in those difficult questions and getting to the nub of the answers.

I know that myself, having just prepared [00:22:00] my board meeting yesterday and We could say before feeling pretty confident to this stage in the year that we're pretty clear what our strategy is. I've delivered umpteen presentations to the team over the last couple of months as we've iterated together on that strategy.

I was pretty confident I knew what our strategy was until I sat down and tried to write that paper. And then I find. Actually, I'm not that clear at all. And there are all sorts of gaps in my thinking, all sorts of wrinkles that need to be ironed out. 

And it was the process of externalizing that thinking for the purpose of crafting my board paper that forced me to face up to those gaps or those wrinkles and do the thinking necessary to close those gaps and iron out the wrinkles and present a much better plan to the board.

For the benefit of it. So I suppose for us, the real win is when management get value from the process of engaging in deep critical thinking, crafting their board papers, and the board is then a nice secondary beneficiary of that.

Oliver Cummings: So just imagining a [00:23:00] board member listening to this, who's got a CEO that they're working with and supporting, who's struggling with how to get their strategy papers right for their board.

I'm just I want to get the exact detail of how what you think best practice looks like and maybe what you do for getting those board papers is it first as a CEO, you go out and you start socializing your ideas with your team where you get them to bubble up the ideas. You then sort of start to frame that as the CEO.

You then start discussing it with a board member or board members informally, you'd then write a paper and then bring that to board and then have the discussion or what is the sequencing of events?

Jen Sundberg: As somebody being tasked with crafting the submission to the board at any stage in that process. Spend some time with the board agreeing the questions you're going to answer in your briefing paper. Agree on those questions. 

If I give you another example of where this didn't happen. We had a client who had on their board, a former chief exec who is now a non exec of another company in that same sector.

And as a former operator, he had [00:24:00] a big appetite for data, loved data. And he would request from management every product line or data related to every product line in every one of their markets performance data for him to see exactly what the sales, the profitability and the manufacturing capacity, all sorts of data relating to every single one of their SKUs.

And that would create an extra 20 or 30 extra pages that would be tacked into their board deck every month. Management hated it, because it didn't just bloat the board deck, it also added this potential risk of who knows what question coming at them, blindsiding them in the board meeting from this non exec who'd spent the previous week or so slicing and dicing this data set every which way looking for interesting correlations.

and so on. Things that management might have missed. So they hated it. And it presented a lot of work for him, actually. And the rest of the board didn't much like it, because again, it added bulk to the board pack and gave them the sense they ought to be reading it. But of course, they didn't have time and they weren't.

So we spent a bit of time with him and we said to him, okay, What is the question that you're grappling with here? When [00:25:00] you ask management for this data set, tell us what's really on your mind with the questions you're trying to answer. And he said to us very honestly, I don't know give me a minute.

Let me try and figure it out. You go down to the staff cafeteria and give me 10, 15 minutes. Come back and I'll see if I can answer that question for you. So we did came back and he'd written down just a very small number of questions he'd written down. First of all, which of our product lines and making us money.

Which of them are positive contributors, which of them are negative contributors, and where are we putting more of our manufacturing capacity? Are we putting more of our capacity into the ones that are making us money, or, as I fear, are we putting more capacity into the ones that are losing us money?

And if we are, is that for good reason? Is it because we're trying to pump prime a new product line, for example, or we're trying to go hard at a bit of competition in the market and take them out? What is the rationale? 

Now, those were very simple questions. We were able to answer the first two questions in one simple chart at the top of a kind of a third of an A4 sheet of paper. [00:26:00] 

And the answer to his final questions about where we are putting extra capacity into the product lines that seem to be losing us money. Why is it for good reason that was answered in narrative in a way that he wasn't getting the answers from this giant 2030. page data set anyway.

So what he ended up with was a single page of A4 that spoke to some absolutely critical questions that were on his mind and that everybody around the boardroom table, exec and non exec, agreed were very valid questions they should have all been asking but hadn't.

So I think once you get to the nub of what are the critical questions here, you can often serve up a much higher quality answer and do the thinking that needed to get done that might have otherwise gotten overlooked than if you just rush off and start preparing information. 

Oliver Cummings: Got it. And so if you apply that to the strategy setting process. Who takes the first crack at the first set of questions typically in your experience? Is it the chair or is it the CEO or is it someone else? 

Jen Sundberg: The CEO in most organizations is the one originating the strategy as, as one of our actually a member on our cap table used to put it, you know, so John Egan, he says the job of the board to widen management's [00:27:00] thinking, not to do the thinking for them.

So typically it's led by the executive, but that doesn't mean you can't have a conversation with the board to test yourself to say I think these are the critical questions We need to answer in this year's strategy. Do we agree? Have I missed something? 

Oliver Cummings: And where does the CEO typically go first when they first ask put those questions down? Are they first going to censor check those with their executive or are they first going to check them with the chair? 

Jen Sundberg: I think normally certainly in the businesses that we work with usually Management have been through a few iterations of this themselves already, grappling with a few critical questions working up what they think is the right response to that, and then sharing that.

And testing that with either members of the board or the chair before iterating again to formalize that. 

Oliver Cummings: And will they typically do that informally outside of the boardroom with the chair or board members? Or will the first step actually be in the board? 

Jen Sundberg: I would agree that an awful lot of the work of the board is not done in the boardroom. And there are definitely different opinions on this. There are some who feel quite [00:28:00] aggrieved at the idea that there are side conversations going on that not everybody is privy to. 

But I think it would be really quite naive to expect all really big decisions to be taken in a small number of hours locked in a wood panelled room.

I think that would feel pretty reckless to me. So a lot of conversations should do go on outside the boardroom, particularly with the chair and the chief exec most often. Ideally, they're in fairly constant dialogue.

Oliver Cummings: I was very struck by one of our recent podcast guests, Professor Andrew Kerkabadze, who portrayed the role of the chair and CEO is very much at the heart of the whole board dynamic and the non execs on the outside.

So if I sort of adopt that model, I would expect the CEO and the chair to be iterating questions offline and then actually bringing it to the board and keeping the non execs reasonably independent. So they could then bring the fresh information Perspective, the independent perspective, having not been as close to it. Is that how you see it or?

Jen Sundberg: I mean, I like that idea. It's kind of interesting. I, [00:29:00] I do think there's a phrase I've often had come to mind of there's no such thing as a good or bad board, just a good or bad chair. I think chairs are obviously really critical, but it depends where your business is, what its challenges are. If you've got certain skills and experience around the boardroom table that could be additive in helping you engage in the thinking It's your strategy.

Why don't you engage them? Right? I don't think it's necessary to have a rule that you don't engage with your board in that way. I get as much value from my board as I possibly could. A chair of one of my clients would ask every board member, non execs, to craft a 250 to 500 word manifesto every year, articulating what the value they brought to the board is and what their vision for the board is for next year. I don't think I'm hugely in favour of too many black and white rules around what board members do or don't do. 

Oliver Cummings: We've touched a little bit on communication, and in the book you talk about how many of us have been taught in ways that often gets in the way of good communication. And you've touched on Using sort of written papers. Are there any other things that you see as being very common [00:30:00] mistakes for boards to make on that communication front?

Jen Sundberg: In the book, we identify five communication conventions that are often drilled into us through our formal education that are wholly unhelpful in the working world. So these are five communication conventions that we can sign to the bin.

And that we replace with five new ones, better ones. One of those conventions, convention number three. Serious subjects demand formal writing. We don't think so. Instead, we believe you should write like a human, no matter what. What you're writing about.

So, quite often when people are asked to prepare a paper for the board or for any forum that's got some sort of weight to it, they want to communicate the seriousness with which they're taking this task and their respect for the audience. And they find themselves, in honour of that, writing in a very formal tone of voice, kind of like a lawyer or maybe even a robot wrote it.

And they find themselves using very long words where short ones would have done. But it turns out that if you use a long word where a short, [00:31:00] simple word would have done the job, you actually sound less smart. Secondly, to be on the receiving end, lots of very formal, dry, impersonal prose. It's really hard to get through. 

And thirdly, probably most importantly, it puts distance between you and your message. And the number one thing boards or any decision making group is looking for is leadership and accountability. In the person who's tabling that information set. 

So, if I'm presenting a report to my board, if our report, if our performance was not what we'd hoped it should be, it's quite tempting to fall back on the passive voice and impersonal, impersonal style of writing.

So it's quite tempting to say, sales targets were missed. Much better. We missed our sales targets. Own the message, good or bad. Communicate that accountability, communicate and evidence leadership. And your reader is far more likely to root for you. Whether that message is fundamentally a good one or not, always use your voice, write like a human.

Oliver Cummings: Do you think That really makes an impact? I can't remember who the politician was, and they tried to, [00:32:00] you know, ape the practice, I think it was, of Churchill, who sent round the document of what good copy looks like, and they got laughed out the houses, because it was sort of like, what is this person doing, getting upset about dotting I's and crossing T's when we've got some serious issues to deal with? I mean, could you see practical or evidence of where this has really had impact.

Jen Sundberg: All the time. So you pick up a report. I wish I could show you a couple, but obviously they're highly confidential. A report written by a senior business leader speaking in plain English, using their voice, talking about the things on their mind, the challenges they're grappling with, the issues they're trying to resolve, and how they plan to resolve them.

You contrast that. to a report that reads like it was generated by computer, utterly impersonal and dry. You get no sense of the person behind the paper. And ultimately what you're doing every time as a board member, you're trying to judge, do we have the right people in this business to solve these problems?

You're always trying to get a sense of, do we have the people we need, right? Even if that's not the explicit [00:33:00] question, it's the constant implicit question. The one lever the board can the chief exec, right? It's pretty much the only one. And cast judgment on the quality of the rest of the leadership team.

So to not surface that it is, it is tell it is another of these smoke signals or canaries in the coal mine that you have a management team that lacks accountability when they present reports in this way, that's putting as much distance as possible from themselves and their messages. It's indicative of a cultural malaise.

that you can see clearly coming through in the board papers. But going back to the, the point you made about the politician, I remember this. I think it was Rhys Morgue. It was Rhys Morgue and I am no defender of Rhys Morgue.

Far from it. And it's always frustrating when you hear, I mean, I'm a classicist and I, I've spent the last few years wincing at Boris Johnson, in my view, kind of ruining it for me when asked by all his references to, you know Latin saints and so on. But no, I think there was, in this one example, a lot of truth to what Rees Mogg was talking about.

And he was probably referencing, Churchill's memos written in [00:34:00] 1940, just as the Battle of Britain was raging. Bombs were falling over London every night. And Churchill dictates a memo to his secretary. A memo begging or beseeching all of the people that write memos for him to write shorter, clearer memos.

At a time of existential national crisis, he decided this mattered because what he recognized was that it didn't matter how good the military intelligence was, it didn't matter how good the battle plans and the military thinking was, if they couldn't communicate it clearly, it wasn't going to cut through.

And they risked, in this case, a matter of life and death. And I think he was right. There's no good doing great thinking if you can't communicate it clearly. You're unlikely to get the support and the collaboration that your thinking needs to be acted on well.

Oliver Cummings: You finished the book with a chapter titled When It All Goes Wrong, and you threw a fly into the ointment right at the end. What should board members listening to this take from that?

Jen Sundberg: Our [00:35:00] thesis in the book is, is both hopefully coherent, certainly believed to be true, which is if you get everybody thinking critically, communicating that thinking well, and focused on what matters most, good things will follow.

But real life is messy, and real life serves up a lot of situations, examples, where that hasn't worked. Right. Give an example. Harry Markopoulos, he was a fund manager. And one day his boss said to him, I want you to go check out this other fund that seems to be performing a lot better than we are.

I want you to go take a look at what it is they're doing. And I want a bit of that. I want a bit of that. I want a bit of that performance. So he went off and had a look and he found this fund. It was called funds run by somebody called Bernie Madoff. 

And he took a look at it and he said it took him about four minutes to figure out this was a fraud and it took him another four hours to mathematically prove it was a fraud.

So he wrote a memo to the SEC and he is a 20 or 21 page memo titled the world's biggest hedge fund is a fraud. He sent it off to the SEC and we all know what happened. Nothing.

So first off, [00:36:00] critical thinking. Secondly. Well communicated. Tick. Thirdly, focused on what matters most. Tick. And the point here for boards is that our thesis doesn't work in pockets. Everybody in the system needs to be open to engaging with difficult questions, open to hearing difficult, challenging new information.

And unless you can get everybody to work in that way, you risk what happened to Harry Markopoulos. So it needs to be cultural. A really good place to start is in the boardroom and with the senior management team and the way they work feeding up into the boardroom. But you need to take it from there all the way down through the organization. Otherwise you risk great thinking landing on deaf ears.

Oliver Cummings: Are there practical steps you could take if you're a chair, listening to this and thinking, ooh, how do I make sure we don't suffer belief perseverance in our boardroom? How do you prevent and inoculate yourself against it? 

Jen Sundberg: I think it is building a culture of asking difficult questions and normalising that. And by difficult questions, I don't mean questions It's [00:37:00] designed as weapons. I don't mean questions to make you look clever for asking them. 

The most challenging questions are often the simple questions that we forget to ask. But normalising asking those questions and the spending time getting to the nub of the issue, getting to the nub of the answer, and once that becomes Normalized, you can go a long way.

 Satin Adella says that when he took over, was it around 20 11, 20 12, around that time, he took over as chief exec of Microsoft. He said, I inherited an organization of world class experts. But he went on to try, but he needed some work, a culture of world class questioners, you know, world class learners.

And he credits much of the success and gosh, they've had a lot of success, but a lot of the success in Microsoft with being this tremendous cultural shift away from this idea. that everybody, you know, that you go to the expert for the answer. Instead, it's everybody's job to engage in the difficult questions.

Nobody has a monopoly on the next good idea or the next thought, the next insight or the next challenging question. It's everybody's job. So I think it [00:38:00] absolutely can be done. You can shift a culture and Bourdon's a great place to start. 

Oliver Cummings: You referenced in the book, the living laboratory of your own business. One of the things that has always challenged me is I don't feel like we've got our own board right when we're, you know, that is our area of supposed expertise and we still haven't got it perfect. Do you feel you've got the board right for your own organization, and if not why not?

Jen Sundberg: I get a huge amount of value from our board. Where I go looking for challenge and advice doesn't begin or end with our board. It's a part of that picture. I think when I think about living the poetry of our business and perhaps the mistakes we've made one of them is probably that. You know, I'm big believers, you know, it's a book suggesting collective intelligence and everybody being empowered to use their brains, use them well.

Pippa and I run the business, probably not that way inclined when we set the business up, right? We're both workaholics, pretty fanatical about detail and not natural delegators, right? And therefore not natural not naturally empowering for the people. But we both suffer the same affliction of a womb, [00:39:00] and we both got pregnant at various stages.

In fact, at one point both pregnant at the same time and had maternity leave at the same time, which forced us to empower our leadership team to run the business in our absence, and the business grew at its fastest rate when we went off on maternity leave, which was a very good data point that maybe we weren't quite as essential in all ways as we maybe thought we were.

And perhaps there's something to be said for actually giving other people a little bit more space to, to use their brains too. And that prompted us to build up a much stronger, richer style of engagement and empowerment through the organization much more collective than perhaps it might have been if we hadn't Had to disappear off for a period of time.

Oliver Cummings: Jen the time has flown by which means it's time for a lightning round We're gonna say a short statement and a few for a quick response if you're ready. The bordered behavior that irritates you most?

Jen Sundberg: Grandstanding so abuse of questions asking questions to make you look smart rather than to progress the thinking of the group.

Oliver Cummings: The best book every board member should read, and [00:40:00] why, of course, they should all read Collective Intelligence.

Jen Sundberg: Good point, that should be the answer, but if, in addition to Collective Intelligence Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It's a book that reminds you that you don't know as much as you think you do, but it makes you hungry for knowledge, hungry to think and learn.

Oliver Cummings: Your favourite quote, and why? 

Jen Sundberg: Nihil nimus. Nothing in excess. But applied not so much to consumption where it's also true, but applied to the views that we hold. So extreme positions, tightly held scare me.

Oliver Cummings: Your most significant professional insight.

Jen Sundberg: Own your agenda. Somebody once said to me, fire yourself on Friday and come back as your replacement on Monday. But better still as an investor in board intelligence who sadly passed away a few years, he once said to me don't just be chief executive of your business. Be chief executive of your life. 

Oliver Cummings: What would you change about the working world? 

Jen Sundberg: Men would take equal paternity leave to women. They have the right today. They just don't take it. 

Oliver Cummings: What have you changed your mind on about boards over time?

Jen Sundberg: They are far more socially minded than I might have assumed. 

Oliver Cummings: What's something [00:41:00] people commonly misunderstand about you?

Jen Sundberg: I'm not competitive, but that doesn't make me any less ambitious.

Oliver Cummings: And finally, three things that those listening should take away from this if they take nothing else.

Jen Sundberg: Number one, board reports are the canary in the coal mine. If there's an absence of critical thinking, clear communication or focus, you can be pretty sure it's missing from the management team. Secondly, questions the catalyst for critical thinking. So build a culture of world class questioners, thirdly, one of the most important jobs of the board is to create the conditions for everyone in the organization to think well, not just the board.

Oliver Cummings: Jen, it is always such a pleasure catching up with you and I'm so pleased to be able to share your huge experience and claritive thought with all those listening. So thank you so much for taking the time.

Jen Sundberg: Thank you.

Oliver Cummings: And thanks to all of you listening. We've been blown away by the incredible feedback about how this podcast has been helping you get board roles and become better board members. This podcast is for you, so if you'd like to suggest guests, topics, difficult challenges, or you'd like to share stories about how the podcast has [00:42:00] impacted you, or have suggestions on how we can improve, please email Podcast at new role.

com that's podcast at new role. com and let me know. I'd love to hear from you otherwise. Thanks again for listening and look forward to having you back here for the next discussion.

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Jennifer on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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