Many attorneys serve on boards, or even committees, within their firms. Several psychological principles can help achieve goals within these settings. What we’re seeing more and more, is that boards need help staying connected in times of stress. When lawyers have emotionally-focused skills, not only do they benefit personally, but they are able to achieve better results on their boards.
Approaching board effectiveness with an emotional connection method is a fairly new idea, but the research has been building to this point for the last few decades. In the 1990s, there was a new focus on the emotional connection that revolutionized adult relationships, and now it is revolutionizing board effectiveness.
General counsel and business lawyers can use this research to develop a method of working with boards. It may sound overwhelming, but there are a few simple things you can do to get the emotional ball rolling. Moreover, this method applies to more than boards—it can be applied to any client, colleague, or even in your personal life to get more fulfilling experiences all around.
Boards become dysfunctional when they get stuck in a negative pattern, which often starts with one person complaining or criticizing and another person defending, distancing, and stonewalling. This triggers a negative cycle in which back-and-forth arguing becomes the norm. As this cycle gains its own momentum, board members start to see each other as enemies and start to physiologically respond to each other as threats.
Lawyers have a new and exciting way of approaching board meetings that encourages better collaboration, more fulfilling experiences, and better solutions.
One way to recalibrate emotional balance is to pause and remind board members that everyone cares about the company and the issues at hand. By just taking a moment to slow everyone down and bring them back to the same page, you can stop the negative cycle from taking over and help the board move forward with a meeting agenda.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Paul Evan Greenwald on how to implement and use the emotion-focused method with his board at the Center Club Orange County and he now applies the method with his other clients in conducting board meetings. The result has been amazing. He shared with me how the emotion-focused method has not only improved his performance as a board leader but also how it has helped make his clients’ board meetings much more effective.
Paul has over forty years of experience as a business lawyer and has attended hundreds of board meetings in his career. An instance where Paul implemented the emotion-focused method was when one of his clients needed to conserve cash and the CFO, who is also the Chairman of the board, had developed a plan to cut everyone’s salary by 10% and eliminate vacation pay to accomplish this. At the onset, this type of plan was a tough pill to swallow; however, Paul was able to approach the situation with emotional connection in mind.
As he explained: "A horrible disruption had occurred, and my training helped me to understand that cutting people off, not allowing them to speak, or get- ting impatient would be the absolute wrong approach. Since I have a responsibility to advise my Chairman about how to lead the board, I jumped in and helped [calm] everybody’s fears and concerns, and gave everybody a bit of time to speak.
As a result, Paul explained, “I was able to facilitate a board meeting where the Chairman of the board could explain his idea, and then each board member was allotted uninterrupted time to voice their concerns about the plan.” Prior to the board meeting, Paul also worked with the Chairman to prepare him for the difficulties he was going to face, and the questions he was likely going to have to answer.
During the meeting, Paul explained: Everyone [was] heard and if somebody [was] cut off, which was quite a bit, [I tried to] respectfully give the speaker an opportunity to speak. After doing that, the Chairman of the board, to his credit, showed the beneficial long-term effect that this would have, and calmed everyone down. When it came time to vote, instead of a divided vote, everybody agreed to cut the pay.”
When I asked Paul what this meant to him, he said, “I felt a great sense [of personal] accomplishment. This was a great example of my retraining from when I started practicing law to a new era of [collaboration], trying to get people incentivized, trying to create some warmth and camaraderie so that a board will be productive.”
By keeping everyone calm and encouraging engagement, Paul was able to prevent the company from suffering by not allowing the board members to shut down and stop communicating. The primary reason board members were able to make a sound decision is because everyone had all the information regarding that decision and they were freely sharing ideas.
In Paul’s words, “The more information you have, the better your decision will be and the more comfortable you will be with it. Board members are listening with open ears [when they are emotionally connected], so they can hear and process the information they need to make decisions.” When people serving on boards focus on emotion-based communication, engagement, involvement, and understanding of the issues become more important, and people become more productive and collaborative.
The primary reason board members were able to make a sound decision is because everyone had all the information regarding that decision and they were freely sharing ideas.
The ultimate goal, as a lawyer, is to get the best results possible for your client. Better results bring a better reputation and more success for your firm. Paul pointed out that he has seen results happen faster by implementing the emotional connection method. He also noticed that board members are coming to meetings with enthusiasm. Whereas before it was a responsibility, now serving on his board is a pleasure. And finally, he has seen increased engagement during the meetings. Collaboration flourishes when board members are engaged. As Paul noted, “When you see your board members smiling, eagerly anticipating each meeting, providing positive feedback, and being involved in meetings by speaking and participating in breakout sessions, it’s very rewarding.”
Developing skills to understand and manage emotional connections is sim- ply the next advancement to which we will all have to adapt. As Paul explained, “When my dad started as a lawyer, his tools were pencils, yellow pads, two phones on his desk, and an old typewriter. That was his whole office. If you don’t move with the times and learn how to use a keyboard and a computer, you’re not just behind the times, you can’t keep up; you’d get left behind. Everything is in front of you.” Paul continues, “Emotional connection and understanding how emotions work are like getting a computer and figuring it out. Now you have a huge tool that’s going to advance your practice, your ability to earn money, your effectiveness, and other boards desiring to have you at their meetings.”
Paul is now able to maintain emotional connections because he is more aware of how he is approaching the boards he works with. He explains, “I’ve learned how to always keep on the positive side of the coin, or half-full side of the glass, and bring people in so they have the desire to participate, instead of cutting them off at the knees or telling them that they’re crazy. I endeavor to ensure we’re creating comfort so board members feel safe; that way, they are eager to participate.”
This is a new era of collaboration. Lawyers have a new and exciting way of approaching board meetings that encourages better collaboration, more fulfilling experiences, and better solutions. By addressing emotional connections, you can stop major problems before they start and get superior results. This is your chance to get ahead of the game–develop your emotional connection skills. Practice and hone them. Focus on creating a positive and warm environment where everyone gets the chance to speak at the next board meeting you attend. Don’t cut people off. Make time to hear and consider everyone’s opinion. You will soon see the difference it makes for you and your clients.