Splats and Stiles

Crossword tragics will surely recognize the terms “splat” and “stile” as being vertical elements of a chair back.


These wonderful names lend themselves to a new series of Splats and Stiles for Chairs. Over the months ahead, I will dare to post some thoughts and techniques that have worked in various chairing situations. I will draw upon observation of numerous capable chairmen and upon tools that have worked in some of my boards, which as you may know are mainly privately held industrial companies. I will try to avoid the obvious and the many pearls which the Institute of Directors publishes in its Four Pillars and teaches in its Chairing the Board programme.

Splat One – First Meetings

I was once parachuted in as the first independent chair of a joint venture company whose international owner directors were struggling with dissonant goals, loss of respect, mistrust and destructive behaviours resulting in governance breakdown. There had been no acknowledged chairmanship for over a year.

My diligence told me that all were successful intelligent guys representing powerful family companies, but the bear-pit of their meetings was bringing out escalating antagonism. I thought a lot about my initial approach and consulted a mentor colleague wise in real-world psychology.

Much swung on the first impression. I had been engaged as a professional chair and would need to show early that they had hired well. Clearly I needed to run a thoroughly professional and wellprepared meeting, displaying respect and courtesy for the members. I would portray in return an expectation of good behaviours from each, but be ready to call out a director for gross discourtesy or attacks on the man.

In the week prior to our first board, I arranged to have a meal with each director separately. While a coffee might have worked, I wanted the time and intimacy of a meal to enable a good first acquaintance. While there was inevitably a lot of venting and attempts to recruit me for a faction, there were also useful insights on what had gone wrong at the board and what remedies might be feasible. The chance to learn about our lives and loves beyond the company and commerce was as always valuable.

My second preparation was my opening speech. In it, I described the situation as it had been related to me, the good governance goal to which everyone subscribed, and the ‘rules’ we would all need to follow to get our company direction on track. To get my points across in an informal way, I chose amusing stories and anecdotes. We voted unanimously then to adopt the new way of working and got on with the meeting.

While nerves remained raw for some months, each director made genuine and successful efforts to lift his game. We learned to debate the issues robustly, without playing the man or mistrusting the motive, commercial results firmed, and the strategy horizon started to lengthen.

Here ends the first Splat.