Lessons in Leadership: Board dynamics with Kim-Adele Platts
Kim-Adele Platts trained as a hairdresser after leaving school at 15, and by the age of 18 owned her own salon. She sold her business four years later to become a cashier at Halifax bank and quickly moved up the ranks. In the following years, she continued to work in the financial sector, for a wide variety of different companies and served at board level for a FTSE 250 company.
After taking a short career break, she decided to start another business: working as a board-level coach specialising in helping executives lead with humanity. Kim obtained a Level 7 diploma in Executive Coaching and Mentoring and received a Global Leadership Certificate from Marshall Goldsmith.
Alongside her own work, Kim is a Non-Executive Director on the board of Equals Trust and The Community Inclusive Trust (CIT).
How do you define what a board is?
Everybody needs a best friend who tells you, honestly, how you look before you go on a night out. I need someone who will tell me how my dress looks before I leave the front door. That’s really that’s what the board of any organisation needs to be – your critical best friend.
It’s an interesting question because the role of executive directors and non-executive directors often converges when it shouldn’t. A non-executive’s responsibility is to encourage, challenge, and push the thinking of other colleagues. Essentially, they should play the role of the devil’s advocate.
What are the different functions of the board?
Everybody has blind spots which impede them from maximising their potential. Think about an athlete like David Beckham. He might have been naturally talented, but to be great, he needed his coaches to identify the areas where he needed to improve. Those areas were his blind spots.
Blind spots are no less relevant in business operations, but the issue is that they are not easily recognisable. This is where the board comes in. Good boards are comprised of individuals which have a variety of skillsets and different life experiences. Their function is to use their expertise to shine a light on the blind spots holding an organisation back. Once a light has been shone on a blind spot, the CEO can act and make necessary changes. It’s the non-executive’s job to find the problem, and the executive’s job to find the solution.
How should a CEO work with a board and vice versa?
A book called Crucial Conversations highlights the importance of relationship building between CEOs and their board members. Conversations between board members and their CEOs can easily escalate into conflict, it happens too often on boards. It occurs primarily because one person is in a position of fear and doesn’t know their place.
When two people are in conflict we tend deal with things in one of two ways; violence or silence. Neither one of those reactions help to address the issues at hand. CEOs need to build a safe space for their boards to work. I’d recommend the book to any CEO who wants to set out a board agenda.
How can a CEO build a strong rapport with the board as a whole?
CEOs need to set the parameters of the relationship at the start. Boards need to have the right conversations, but to do that, they need the freedom to have the right conversations. The expectation on how you form a contract with each other must be immediate in the relationship between the CEO and their board. An agenda should detail what board members should expect from their CEO and what the CEO must expect from board members.
If a CEO can identify what they and their board members are happy with from the start, they can outline their mission. If you don’t set that contract from the beginning then conflicts will emerge – the agreement at the start is therefore the code of conduct. If people deviate from that initial contract, then the CEO can refer to the expectations they originally set. When the mutual agenda between the CEO and the chair is strong from the beginning of the relationship, it really does pay dividends.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing a new board?
Even one new trustee will give a board a completely different dynamic. Dynamics change because that new trustee brings a completely fresh personality, skillset and life experience. You can’t assume that you’re going to keep performing even if you have only lost one member. You need to go back and lay that groundwork with each new trustee that comes in.
People often talk about how senior leadership teams need to plan for different circumstances, but nobody knows what the future actually holds. Just look at the world over the past few months! The world changes so quickly and you need a flexible approach when new challenges emerge. A suitable approach has to account for the fact that everybody is human and things do go wrong.
For instance, during this lockdown I’ve had to leave board meetings midway through to tend to my three-year-old daughter. There has to be an openness and flexibility to the way boards approach their business. The pandemic has changed everything in that respect – global businesses are accommodating for peoples different home and work circumstances. It’s shown what we can do when we think outside of the box.
What makes an academy trust board strong?
Academy trust boards have to operate like business boards do. We get too hung up on the labels we give things. Education is not oppositional to business. If schools are using their budgets wisely, they are distributing more resources to the issues that need those resources. Knowing where to save money, leads to more efficient reinvestment elsewhere. Putting resources into the right areas gets hearts and minds in the right direction.
In my work as a coach and author, I developed the concept of the Convergence Sweet Spot Model for board operations. At the heart of this model, and it doesn’t matter which organisation it is – an academy trust, a FTSE 100 or a not-for-profit - there are three groups that boards must appeal to.
Firstly, the company - what’s its purpose? For schools, their purpose is to achieve their budget. Secondly, you must appeal to the customer - what do they want and what are they looking for? Boards need to know the demand, so they can resolve it.
Lastly, and this is the one element which businesses too frequently lose sight of - the colleague. A company may be able to recognise the supply and demand, but an effective business comes from those who work in it. The hearts, minds and dreams need to overlap. Once all three members (company, customer and colleague) buy in, the company thrives.
What have you noticed about the boards of academy trusts since you became a non-executive director?
For me personally, as I have previously mentioned, the principles of a trust board should not be any different from a business board. However, they feel very different because of the labels we put on things. Academy trust boards don’t feel like they’re business boards because they’ve appointed themselves as a trust board. In actual fact, when it comes to the boards function, even if you’re a charity, you’re still a business. The principles are the same: You can’t spend more than what comes in. These are the same principles that all humans live by. We all have to budget.
When issues in academy trust boards emerge it’s often because they’re focusing on the label rather than the purpose. A trust is given a pot of money, but the purpose drives how you spend it. We want to spend that money, for the best return of the purpose. It doesn’t matter what sector the board is operating in. In education, the purpose is to give chances to our next generation, whereas the purpose of a corporation is to deliver money to the shareholders. That’s the only separation. The reality is we all need to make that penny count, as best we can. The greatest challenge for an academy trust is drawing a too greater distinction between education status and business status. It too often means that money does not get spent in the best way.
What advice would you give a new trustee?
New board members need to understand what their role is. A non-executive director is a completely different job to what they’re doing during their normal working hours. In their work lives they’re a ‘doer’. As a non-executive director, they can’t overstep their mark. Their job is to shape, to encourage and to debate. Knowing what their role is, and more so what their role is not, is the greatest challenge. They almost need to unlearn some of the skills which made them successful.
What training would you give to a new board member?
They need to spend time with the group to know what’s gone on before within the trust. When I first joined an academy trust, I went for coffees with some of the other trustees to get to know them a bit more. I found out, not just their role within the trust, but also what their values are. When you understand someone’s values, it sets the tone of your relationship. You want to work with them constructively, rather than destructively. You don’t want to go in all guns blazing. You need ensure you’re part of a collaborative and supporting board that challenges each other.
Becoming a trustee is just like beginning a brand new job - you’re excited, but apprehensive because you want to make a good impression. No matter how senior you are, you get first day nerves. The saying goes: your reputation will get you in the room, but it’s your character which keeps you there. There’s nervousness, and so I’d encourage a new trustee, to get to know the other newer trustees, ideally those who have been on the board between three to six months. The aim of this is to identify the learning curve that others are on. A new trustee has to understand what others have learnt from the role, and how they’ve dealt with issues as they’ve emerged.
How should a CEO deal with a difficult chair?
No matter how difficult senior personnel can seem, I always assume positive intent. I don’t believe that anybody wakes up wanting to be difficult. I always believe we should expect the intentions of others, to be honourable, even if their impact may be off. When I’m dealing with a difficult conversation I always start it off by saying: “What I think you were trying to achieve is X, am I right in thinking your goal is Y?” If they say yes, that’s great, and we can work around the shared desire to achieve Y.
If we are both on the same page, trying to achieve the same thing, we can come together to evaluate how the individual has gotten to that point. If both the CEO and chair are after the same goal, they can work together and arrive at that goal. When a CEO is able to demonstrate that both goals are the same, they immediately go from challenging them, to being their ally. You don’t want them to think negatively of you or themselves. My goal is to create a safe and honest space where they can achieve their aim.
Finally, what advice would you give a new CEO seeking to build a relationship with their board?
Any new CEO will soon realise that although it’s lonely at the top, it will not be quiet. For a new CEO, there are so many people around you; education boards, trust board, staff, heads, parents and governing bodies. It’s essential that new CEOs build relationships. They need to identify what other trustees have learnt from their time on the board, especially if it’s their first experience as a CEO. I encourage them to ask trustees what they wish they had known from day one. Gathering information from others also helps you build those essential relationships.
Our thanks go to Kim-Adele for taking part in this fantastic interview.