Successfully Engaging Your Board of Directors


I was recently asked the question, “How does one sell a new idea to a Board of Directors?” As a start, I would suggest we do it carefully!

In reality, there are many nuances to this question, and irrespective of the nuances, it’s not an easy question to answer.

Why? Well, it really does depend on:

  • What we’re trying to sell
  • Why we think they should buy-in
  • What the risk implications are
  • The risk appetite of the company and the Board
  • The familiarity of the Directors with the “new idea”
  • How much “we,” as the person / people selling the “new idea,” are trusted

My assertion is that while you can tick the boxes on all of the above (and even have an impeccably argued and persuasive business case), if the idea is new or unknown and a decision is needed quickly, it really comes down to whether you are trusted by the Board or not.

This brings us to the Trust Equation (as developed by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford). Have you considered the Trust Equation as part of the selling process? Have you thought about how you stack up in this equation?

Maister, Green and Galford proposed this equation primarily in the context of a consultant/client relationship; but I think the equation is appropriate wherever there is an element of “selling.” Whether or not the “seller” is heard is primarily based on the perception of whether they can be trusted.

In essence, the Trust Equation determines that the level of “Trustworthiness” (T) of a person is equal to the sum of “Credibility” (C = it speaks to words and credentials), “Reliability” (R = how others perceive the consistency of our actions, and our actions’ connection with our words [integrity]) and “Intimacy” (I= how secure or safe someone feels sharing with us, a reflection of how well you are able to build meaningful connections with people, regardless of whether you see yourself as an extrovert, introvert, or a combination of the two), divided by “Self-Orientation” (S = relates to our caring, and is revealed in our focus – is it about myself or others?).

The Trust Equation

Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation

Most of us lead with the first two factors – Credibility and Reliability. These are quantifiable and “rational,” but tend to be overrated. Potential clients aren’t comfortable “confessing” that they have feelings, intuitions, instincts and chemistry. They don’t want to reject someone based on “We just didn’t have a good feeling about you.” Most humans buy from the heart, and justify it from the head.

This means the Intimacy and the Self-Orientation factors are very powerful in selling.

Rational thinking (including C and R) is about defining benefits and payoffs. However, any expected value must be discounted by the client’s confidence that they’ll get the results promised. The I and S factors speak to this. Can I collaborate and be honest with this person – and they with me? Do they actually care about me and my organisation, or are we just means to their ends?

The Trust Equation reflects the human balance of mind and heart. Together it creates powerful economics within our relationships.

Many con men are credible, and sharks are reliably shark-like. However, if we get a sense that the “seller” understands and appreciates us (and that they seem to have our better interests at heart) then we allow their intelligence and dependability to be of service to us. A mismatched motive will undo ALL of the previously hard won trust earned by building a reputation of credibility, reliability, and intimacy.

If your Board sees you as having your own agenda, your own self-interest at heart, and your motive is not clear and transparent, then you are unlikely to sell your idea successfully.

So what can you do to increase the above-line factors – Reliability, Credibility and Intimacy – and the below-the line factor – Self-Orientation?

The next time you need to sell a new idea to your Board, once you’ve done the obvious – developed a compelling business case, considered the appetites of the Board, etc. – it would be worthwhile to think about how trustworthy you are perceived to be. It may be too late by then; it’s time to start working on this now! Assess the strength of your relationships with your Board of Directors, and then take the time to improve the trust they have in you where their support is lacking.

Brian has successfully translated his extensive operational experience into a focus on helping people build sustainable careers. He has consulted to a large number of organisations, across all organisational levels and worked with a wide range of individuals. Brian has a Masters of Business Leadership and an Honours degree in Information Systems (University of South Africa), a Bachelor of Science (Rhodes University, South Africa) and Diplomas in Personnel Management and Project Management.

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