Cultivating a 'business feel' in the boardroom

  • Date:01 Feb 2014
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
The commercial world trains us to be objective and rational, but as Steven Segal argues, it doesn’t always attune us to listening to our “gut” for signs of danger.


When there is a fire, firemen are called into action by the sound of an alarm bell. When there is an accident on the road, cars are rallied into moving out of the way by the sound of sirens. And when a baby is in distress, a mother or care giver is called into action by the sound of crying. If we were not alarmed by these calls, we would not be called into action.

But what about distress in organisations, and in boardrooms in particular? How are the signs of danger picked up, communicated and responded to? Evidence suggests the call is very often not heard and thus the response is not forthcoming. And most of this has to do with the way in which communication between the “crying baby” or the operational levels and the C-suite and boardrooms of organisations take place.

Indeed, there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest the danger and “alarm bell” dimensions of communications are often filtered out by the forms in which communication take place.

A very well-known example is the way in which danger regarding the space shuttle Columbia’s re-entry to earth in 2002 culminated in its explosion and the death of the crew.

The danger was not communicated in the form of an “alarm bell” that could be heard. Rather, it was presented in the context of a PowerPoint report in a way so devoid of human emotion that the board of NASA listening to the report’s details could not even pick it up as a sign of danger.

In a highly abstract and scientific way, the report was called a “Review of Test Data Indicates Conservatism for Tile Penetration”. This phrase did not even call board members’ attention to the signal of danger and it was passed over without discussion.

Such incidents are not isolated. Andrew Grove, in his time as CEO of Intel, tells a range of stories about how before information is passed on to the board, the language in which the information is crafted is of such a scientific and objective nature that the possibility of anything personal is sure to be excluded.

Yet, as the writings of Sigmund Freud in psychology demonstrated, danger is not communicated in an abstract, scientific or numerical way. Alarm is experienced first and foremost in an emotional way. This is what gets the adrenalin going. It is what makes people alert and attentive. It creates a presence of mind that information which is distilled and abstracted cannot communicate. It is the mood of what keeps people awake at night that is central to boardroom discussions.

This is why ex-CEOs like Lou Gerstner of IBM or Jack Welch of General Electric were highly sceptical of formal presentations. They believed they did not communicate the urgency or what I call the “business feel” of the situation.

For example, Gerstner says: “In one of the first meetings, I asked for a briefing on the state of the business… At that time, the standard format of any important IBM meeting was a presentation using overhead projectors and graphics on transparencies… Nick was on his second overhead when I stepped to the table and, as politely as I could in front of his team, switched off the projector. After a long moment of awkward silence, I simply said: ‘Let’s just talk about your business’.”

There is something about talking about one’s business rather than doing a presentation that makes it more real and less abstract. It creates greater connectivity and thus less distance. Here we can listen to people’s worries, their concerns and doubts. When this can be done in the boardroom it creates greater awareness and ability to listen.

Welch shares a similar experience: “I wanted to drill down, to get beyond the blinders and into the thinking that went into them. I needed to see the business leaders’ body language and the passion they poured into their arguments… There were too many passive reviews.”

As Welch highlights, to know a business is to not only have objective information about the business. It is to have a sense of the “feel”, the “attunement” or the passion people have for the business.

It is not only objective information that helps analyse a business. It is the “business feel” that goes into conversations and discussions that is central to the reading of issues of concern and importance to the business – just as it is in the case of a family or a sports team.

“Business feel” is like the art of telling a good joke. Everything relies on the timing of the punch line. There is no predefined formula for the latter.

So too, “business feel” is central to being attentive to the challenges and opportunities of a business. It is an ability to tune into the rhythm of a business.

It presupposes a technical knowledge of a business and a well-disciplined intuition for asking the right questions.

Of course, this does not mean the members of a board need to become all “touchy feely” but, like a good parent or executive coach, they need to be able to absorb the emotional concerns to make contextually and situationally appropriate judgements.

The ancient Greeks used to call the ability to make situationally appropriate judgements “practical wisdom”.

Practical wisdom is not only  based on abstract information, but also on a critical feel for the situation, grounded on dialogue and conversations conducted in the emotion or mood of curious inquiry, rather than presentations with little time left for questioning at the end.

It includes the ability to not only listen to the voice of objective reason, but to the concerns of key stakeholders in an organisation.

It is the basis for making effective decisions, especially where all the facts are not available.

And it involves not just intuition, but the development of intuition into prudent judgement.

While our present organisational climate trains us to be objective and rational, it does not always attune us to listening to the business feel or the concerns of members of the organisation.

Intel’s Grove learnt this almost to the cost of the company.

As he writes in his book Only The Paranoid Survive, the last thing the board and senior management want to hear in many organisations is the bad news.

This strikes fear not only in directors, but radiates throughout the organisation.

It often means the fear factor will be sanitised out of the information passed up the chain of command.

By the time the reports reach the board, they are so devoid of mood that a sense of false comfort prevails.

Yet again, as Freud told us, fear is one of nature’s change agents. If we cannot hear the fear, then we cannot see the danger.

Grove tells us that in the end, it was his and the board’s ability to listen to the fear of the salespeople that saved Intel. The salespeople saw the changes sweeping the industry long before the C-suite and board began to see it.

Luckily, Grove had cultivated the virtue of being willing and able to listen to the voice of worry.

Worry is the basis of care and only those who care notice and see it out of the corner of their eyes.

Of course, as many of us know, too much worry is paralysing and precludes us from listening. Too little worry makes us complacent.

Part of practical wisdom, to paraphrase Aristotle, is knowing how to worry in the right way, at the right time, to the right degree, in the right context and in the right measure.

This produces vision, energy and insightful action. Then the “butterflies in the stomach” begin to fly in formation!

So what do conversations for “business feel” require?

  1. Tough empathy. Not sympathy,
    but the paradoxical ability to be objective and tune into a situation simultaneously.
  2. Worrying appropriately. Know how to distinguish the whinges from the practically wise worries.
  3. Curiosity. The basis of “seeing through the mist”.
  4. Reading the times (as
    Machiavelli put it).
  5. Listening to the emotion or mood in which assertions are made.
  6. Listening to the voice of toxin handlers – those people spread throughout the organisation who, in an informal way, are healing the various toxic relationships that occur in all organisations.
    Listening for the “winds of change”.
  7. Having an appreciation not only for information but for context – something Japanese and Chinese but not Western companies are very good at.
  8. Understanding how dependent on the organisation you are.
  9. Developing an ability to see the connection between the details and the whole.