Politicians as Directors

Politicians as Directors

December 11, 2014

Board succession planning is an important topic for boards of all organizations, and in particular for their governance committees. Many boards use a skills matrix – a chart that captures the skills of the existing board members and allows the governance committee to identify areas of expertise and experience that should be prioritized in identifying future candidates. In addition to filling specific skill gaps, governance committees work to identify candidates who will be effective directors. Because it is difficult to assess a candidate’s potential for boardroom effectiveness without seeing the person in action, boards often look to particular career accomplishments to screen for this potential. The short list of candidates considered by a governance committee generally includes high achievers in business, law, accounting or consulting. However, boards should also consider successful politicians for the attributes and experience that contribute to high performing boards.

The qualities of an effective director and those of a successful politician are remarkably similar. For example, a good director is a quick study – many independent directors know little about the industry in which the company operates at the time they join the board. They must be able to come up to speed on an issue quickly, master the structure and strategy of the organization and gain command of the detail that is necessary to make board-level decisions. Similarly, politicians come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Those who become cabinet ministers assume responsibility for complex areas of government. However, they seldom come to the position with in-depth knowledge of the area of government for which they are accountable. They must review enormous volumes of briefing materials on every issue in their portfolio, reconcile competing issues where possible and align the work of their ministries with the policies of their government.

Directors rely on management and on the corporation’s advisors for information, analysis and recommendations. The same is also true of prime ministers, premiers and members of cabinet – all of whom rely on their chiefs of staff and heads of public service for that support. Directors must have the courage of their convictions and be prepared to offer their board colleagues the benefit of their honest view on the issues under discussion – but they must be able to do so in a constructive manner. They must be able to keep the best interest of the corporation front and centre, but take into account the interests of stakeholders as appropriate. The same applies to decisions by government. At the cabinet table, ministers must be prepared to present their views frankly and participate in discussions constructively, keeping in mind the implications of their decisions on a wide range of stakeholders. Should cabinet decide to proceed differently than a minister has recommended, the minister in question must accept the decision of the group, support it publicly and play the role required in putting that decision into effect.

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