Navigating the Boardroom: A Shift from Execution to Empowerment

Navigating the Boardroom: A Shift from Execution to Empowerment
Pontos' General Councel Elina Lae

“When I first started my journey as a member of a company board – representing Pontos on a portfolio company board – I had a certain perception of board work. I was excited to help the companies to get excellent job done. Little did I know, this perception was to be drastically changed,” writes Elina Lae, Pontos General Counsel.

In my previous position, as a Vice President of a New York headquartered, global investment bank, work meant producing excellent work product – providing value-add advice to Fortune 500 clients, mentoring and training more junior team members, writing late night emails and 100+ page documents, being on Sunday afternoon conference calls and having a 200% service provider attitude. We were taught that all problems could be solved if we just worked hard, innovated and collaborated closely.

So when I joined my first board, I enthusiastically took on project leadership where I could potentially complete the assignment efficiently using my expertise, diving into details and immersing myself into the company’s business. This meant getting involved in the project details to help the management drive better and timely results on important projects.

Admittedly, in all cases things did move a lot faster. The periods where people paused and just took a breath not knowing what to do next got eliminated. We got a process which usually would have taken 6 months done in 3 months.

While projects were completed more quickly in this way, the aftermath was often more challenging. The people who were involved in the day-to-day management got sidelined from their own role. They thought I was stepping into their domain, pushing things forward without appreciating the internal processes behind each workstream. They felt disenfranchised. They felt unmotivated and disengaged and started to wait for instructions on what to do on each step instead of independently taking action. They did not feel that they owned the results of the project and were hesitant to pick up the workstreams from there.

In addition, this had negative consequences to my personal wellbeing. I was exhausted, and felt that I had compromised my values in the process by putting my work ahead of my family. I felt I lost perspective, was grumpy, behind on personal must dos like exercise and sleep.

I knew that a change was needed.

The good thing about working at a private equity investment firm is that you can have a do-over with every investment. You start fresh, and you have the opportunity to make the first impression and position yourself differently in the boardroom.

So when I joined a new board about a year ago, I got the opportunity to take a new approach – being consultative, providing advice, perspective and market views.

I decided to focus on strategy, not on implementation. To maintain perspective, provide positive feedback, encouragement and energize the management instead of taking over workstreams. I realized that this freed up my energy – and allowed the company management to continue at a 100% effort and stay motivated.

Now, as I had stepped back from the “hands-on” approach, it allowed me to reflect on leadership at a higher level.

But having gotten used to getting things done fast, the question I was still asking myself was “if we are facing an ultimate deadline – is it better to let the management run the process, even with a bit of delay?” As I realized, I was asking the wrong question.

I understood that great leadership means driving change with courage.

Courage allows you to formulate a clear vision of what needs to be done. It empowers your team to define the steps needed to get to the common goal, to work together. It frees up your resource to think at a higher level – to be consultative instead of a micro manager. Courage is pure energy.

The right question to ask as a board member was: “Am I encouraging and challenging the management enough to take brave action towards a clear vision?”

There we would find an answer that would reveal the reality. If a board member ever is to jump into project management, that strictly needs to be an interim solution. If the management cannot operate without project management by the board on a permanent basis or the board otherwise needs to constantly dive into details to second guess management’s work, the only realistic solution is for the board to change the management. The trust and patience of the board should be quite extensive, but once it is exhausted, action needs to be taken quickly.

After all, the role of the board is to encourage, enable and provide perspective. To enable, not to take action. To guide, not to criticize. And maintain the vision even if it requires harder decisions.

And today, I hold this as my North Star in board work.

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Lae Elina

Elina Lae

General Counsel

+358 50 596 1083