Coaching a chairman

“Khun Kriengsak, I chair a board with six directors, two of whom are outside independent members. I think I can be a better chairman,” Piwat tells me.

“Khun Piwat, how may I help?”

“I read the book Chairing the Board by John Harper, who wrote: ‘The modern chairman also has a role of coaching. One should act as a coach for one’s directors to help them become more knowledgeable, competent and effective as directors.’

“Next week, I will chair the monthly board meeting again. I would like to record how I run the meeting. Then, we can review it together. After that, I want you to coach me how on to be a good coach in the boardroom.”

A week later, we sit through the two-hour video of the board meeting. Afterward, I ask: “Khun Piwat, what did you do well as a modern chairman?”

“I managed time well. We started and finished on time. We followed the agenda precisely. We made critical decisions according to the agenda. There was enough time to share all the directors’ judgements and viewpoints.”

I nod and probe further: “What could be improved?”

“I should start with a couple of minutes of chat as an ice-breaker. That would ease the atmosphere. I think I will do that next time.

“But also, I’d like to do more to encourage Khun Siam, one of the independent members, to say more. He’s a sharp person but he’s too quiet in the meeting. I know he has more to contribute. How should I do that?”

“Do what?”

“Make Khun Siam engage more.”

“Why doesn’t he do that? Doesn’t he know he has to contribute more?”

“I guess.”

“How do you ensure he really understands?”

“I think I need to give him some straightforward feedback.”

“Okay. Would it possible that even you gave him specific feedback, he’d probably still act the same way as he does now?”

“It’s highly likely.”

“What made you say that?”

“Because I might not address the real issue _ why he didn’t talk as much as I expected.”

“What would be the potential causes of this problem?”

“I invited him to this board because I met him on the board of one of our subsidiaries. He was more outspoken and shared a lot of critical thinking.”

“What is the difference between that board and this one?”

Khun Piwat thinks for a couple of seconds. He makes a connection and then exclaims: “In that board we both were members _ we were at the same level in the board’s hierarchy. In this one I’m the chairman he’s a member. There is a hierarchy gap here.”

“Why would that be a potential causes of the problem?”

“He may be too kreng jai. That’s one.”

“What else?”

“Another one might be the norms of this board meeting.”

“Tell me more””In the first board meeting, I shared a set of ground rules that would be a norm for the board. One rule in particular is about debate in the boardroom. I will not allow any board member who opposes an idea to speak without significant data to support his view. I told them that we wanted to ensure that every board decision must be rational. Hence, don’t use intuition or gut feelings without significant data to support your argument in the boardroom.”

“And … ?” I’m still listening without making any judgement.

“And now I think that particular rule is so stupid,” Khun Piwat says. “It’s discouraged all the members from sharing their views and their valuable judgements. It’s unrealistic.”

“Khun Piwat, what would you plan to do differently in the next board meeting?”

“I think that in the next session, I’ll start by spending five minutes asking around about each member’s personal information _ not too personal, of course. Then, I’ll inform them that I want to be more flexible about our ground rules _ in particular the one that discourages people from using their judgement. This is because judgement is an opinion, a personal view on a subject, and often there is no significant data support.

“The reason I chose everyone in this room is because they’re highly mature, and they have good track records of sound judgement. Hence, I have to respect their views regardless of whether I agree with them or not.”

“Sounds great, Khun Piwat.”

“Coach, I want to be good at listening like you. How do you do that?”

“What did you see?”

“You’ve kept pretty quiet, even though some of my ideas deserved to challenged. Why didn’t you challenge me?”

“Why did I have to challenge you?”

“To win an argument.”


“To prove that you’re smarter than me _ if you’ve won an argument.”

“What would be the benefit I gained?”

He’s silent for a moment and then an insight occurs to him. “Ah! Listening without judging. I don’t need to win an argument. I don’t need to prove that I’m smarter than the other person. What I really need is for the other person to express his thoughts more.”