Aspiring directors make it real in a virtual environment

Directors have an enormous responsibility to set the ‘tone from the top’, with breakdowns in board behaviour often identified as a contributor to corporate crises and failure.

And with corporate crises in the headlines this year, director education and effectiveness are increasingly under the microscope.

Keen for more insights and to continue my own education, I enrolled in the Effective Director Course (EDC), Governance Institute’s offering for aspiring and new directors.

It’s the women’s exclusive version of the course, launched this year in a highly targeted move to equip more women for senior roles and encourage the next generation of female leaders.

While covering all elements of the EDC curriculum, this stream includes a session on tackling unconscious bias, enhancing influence and impact in the boardroom, strategies for overcoming key cultural challenges, plus a session on securing a board role, or moving to your next.

While the EDC is typically run as a three-day intensive course, this course is more flexible, running over seven weeks as mostly 3.5-hour sessions.

We receive a pack of course materials by email a few days before kick-off and zoom links are saved into calendars.

Logging in for the first session, my new classmates appear one by one on my laptop screen and introductions are soon underway. With the course conducted 100% online, students join from around Australia – from Sydney CBD to the Melbourne suburbs (in lockdown at the time), to Darwin, Perth and Brisbane.

We introduce ourselves and outline our boardroom experiences, if any, so far. We are encouraged to switch off phone notifications and put our emails on hold for a few hours, and we soon learn that our facilitator Julie Garland McLellan is very adept at keeping those tempted to multitask (me!) on our toes, swiftly bringing participants back into the ‘room’ by seeking our thoughts or posing a question.

It’s a friendly, polite group, with many of us fitting in study into busy work and family lives. Most participants are keen to upskill to help secure a board position, or progress in their board career, while some are in-between roles and keen to finetune their skills as they tackle the job-hunt.

We soon start to drill down into the key elements of a high-performing board, including the role and responsibilities of directors plus the relationship between the board, governance and culture.

The duties of directors are outlined, and we learn about the board and their role in the performance of the organisation - and how a high-performing board can make a more positive impact.

Next up is a module on ‘director dynamics’ and we examine how directors communicate – and how we can challenge our assumptions and decision-making styles.

We are equipped with new negotiation techniques, learn the key to (and difference between) persuasion and influence and find out how to use different styles of questions to gather information.

The next session is dedicated to ‘the board room experience’ where all participants are assigned a persona for a fictitious board meeting, with the course facilitator acting as CEO. It’s an eye-opening and at-times quite entertaining experience that helps brings the learnings so far to life.

We hear the latest on unconscious bias challenges in the workplace from Diversity Australia’s Dr Cate Borness, and the final session, run by Women on Board’s Claire Braund, drills down on how to secure a board position or progress to your next board role.

It’s a fast moving and to-the-point session and the small class numbers mean Claire can offer individual tips and thoughts. A package of resources sent post-session includes a board CV template and action plan.

As well as the classroom-based sessions, there are three written assessments. Thankfully they are not too lengthy but do require a review of the course materials and some critical thinking. I squeeze the writing in during the quiet of the early mornings on weekends, when my two young whirlwind daughters are still fast asleep.

I embarked on the Effective Director Course eager to experience Governance Institute’s new flagship offering, an information gathering exercise given these are key issues that we are often cover in our articles, speaking engagements and in the media.

But I’ve walked away intrigued and inspired by the potential of those in the boardroom to impact and influence so may crucial aspects of an organisation – and therefore society.

I’ve learnt how to listen more actively, how to think more deeply and how to question my assumptions – all skills that I have been using daily since the conclusion of the course.

And it has made me wonder if perhaps I might even be an aspiring ‘effective director’ after all, and if so, how I might be best placed to direct these aspirations.

I end the last Zoom session feeling inspired but also a little sad that the weekly catch ups with the group have come to an end.

Some of us have connected on LinkedIn and I will certainly be watching out for everyone’s future board careers with great interest.

Find out more about Governance Institute’s Effective Director Courses and upcoming course locations here.

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