Universal qualities of boardroom leadership

Effective leadership in the boardroom requires taking a long term view, being open, a good listener, and always being curious. That’s the advice of Linda Yang, chair of the Asian Corporate Governance Association, recalling more than three decades serving in a variety of boardroom positions, including corporations, non-profits and public institutions.

Sharing her insights and experience recently as part of the Leadership Dialogue Series at NUS Business School, Yang recalled how her first post serving as a board member came when the governor of California appointed her to the board of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), the largest pension fund in the US.

During the interview process she was asked how she would feel serving on a board where all the other members were “middle-aged white men.”

Yang said that she felt the man who was asking the question might have been more concerned that it was the other board members who would feel uncomfortable working with “an oddball” ethnic Chinese women. As long as they dealt with each other professionally, she replied, it was not a problem.

ThinkAloud4The president of the board helped ease the way for her. He arranged a private lunch so they could get to know each other and set up meetings with some of the other board members and with CalPERS executives, as well as a get-together with the general counsel to get her up to speed on the laws governing retirement.

“So he gave me a very good introduction on how to get yourself to be considered a peer with them,” she said.

By observing the board president, she learned other lessons that served her well throughout the years. For example, she says he did not speak much at board meetings, preferring to leave the floor open for board members to express their views.

But it was obvious the president was listening closely, because he was able to summarize the points of discussion, extract points that were common to all and come up with a resolution for the board.

“It was a great introduction for me on how to serve and be of value to the whole body,” Yang said.

Yang put these lessons to use when she joined the board of the Asian Development Bank in 1993. It wasn’t possible to set up lunch meetings with everyone at the Manila-based bank so Yang did the next best thing – making a personal call to each of the other board members to introduce herself and learn of their concerns.

“They were pleasantly surprised that the representative of the United States would make the first call,” she said.

Creativity

At the time the ADB had 53 member countries with economies in varied stages of development (the United States is a founding member, as is Afghanistan). Yang quickly learned that getting everyone to agree on a resolution takes time, patience and some creativity.

“I learned that to get people to go along with what you want, you have to think of ways to solve their problems. You have to understand where the other party is coming from, why he needs this, if there’s a problem you can help solve. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. But at least you can demonstrate that you tried very hard.”

Yang practices what she preaches, as is evident from when she was being interviewed for a position on the board of the Bank of China (Hong Kong) in 2004. This came just a few months after the CEO of the bank had been jailed for corruption.

During the interview process she told the bank chairman that the most important thing for her was transparency. She then went on to disclose that she had been suspended for insubordination when she was California’s savings and loan commissioner. Eventually she was allowed to go back to work but there were lessons to be learned here, too.

‘Credibility and trust’

“In that kind of circumstances you have to hold on to core values and principles. That builds credibility and trust. And trust is the very foundation of one who wants to be a leader,” she said.

A common thread in Yang’s anecdotes was a willingness to take on new challenges.

When she joined the CalPERS board for example, she said she didn’t have much experience in investing. When she joined the BoC she said she wasn’t that familiar with the banking system in China or Hong Kong. But she did it to stretch, something she learned from her mother.

“My mother always says that if it’s something you know how to do, and do well, it’s not really worthwhile doing it again,” she said.

“You always have to seize opportunities that you really have to stretch, that you have to learn more in order to do a good job. Because that’s how you expand your horizons.”

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