Edited by Jonas Gabrielsson, Wafa Khlif and Sibel Yamak
Chapter 3: Dealing with strategic tensions on the board: the role of the chair in fostering engagement and debate
This chapter presents the findings of a study of the chairs and CEOs of large UK listed companies, exploring the chair’s role in harnessing the capabilities of the board in order to deal with strategic tensions. The study draws on 30 in-depth exploratory interviews with chairs and CEOs and finds that chairs have a wide range of choices at their disposal in pursuit of the surfacing and handling of strategic tensions by the board. These choices include setting the tone, the policy and practice of engagement between non-executives and the business, and between the board and the CEO. It is essential for the chair to take a proactive approach and ensure that tension-generating topics are part of the agenda and that all board members, formal or not, are encouraged to attend committee work. Engagement is insufficient if it is not followed by appropriate debate. Chairs manage board dynamics and participants’ contributions during meetings, ensuring, by means of regular summarising and concluding, that tensions are confronted and discussed by all members and that a shared direction is agreed. Through such practice, chairs establish the degree of board involvement in strategy, aiming for an involvement that is both challenging and supportive of the executive and which is best described as interactive strategising. Boards of directors regularly face difficult, strategic-tension-generating issues, and this study offers fresh insight into the chair’s critical role as leader.
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