How to be an effective director: 10 essential attributes

Written by
Dr Kellie Vincent

12 Apr 2017

12 Apr 2017 • by Dr Kellie Vincent

Recent examples of considerable sums being paid out as ‘golden parachutes’ provide some evidence of the magnitude of challenges faced. “Differences in vision” tend to be cited as reasons for departures of directors at the same rate as we hear the muttering of “irreconcilable differences” in divorce cases. This exact reason was reported by the Financial Times as the reason for the short (post-emissions scandal) reign of Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt as head of compliance at VW.  

Hohmann-Dennhardt survived the course in this challenging and substantive role for only 13 months before exiting with an estimated €10m-€15m. This payout was recognised by the FT as being related to “the scale of the problems Ms Hohmann-Dennhardt was trying to clean up”. (FT, 8.2.17). 

What does the boardroom need?

As such to thrive in this context the need to become a professional director is greater than ever, but actually appreciating the range of attributes required to perform at your best is the first step to success. While developing our new MBA designed for aspiring directors, we began to consider the qualities required to succeed in the boardroom. Looking at the current climate, there are ten main attributes which we identified as the most highly needed within organisations, through our work with professional directors, as per the diagram below:

Often within leadership development training there is an explicit focus on one or just a few of these attributes. We would argue that it is through the careful and sustained development of the entire collection of attributes that board directors and company leaders can best survive and thrive in ambiguous organisational contexts. Frequently, some of these  attributes are merged and so their true value is not effectively considered. The areas of innovation and entrepreneurship are obvious examples, but the ability to try new ways of working and be innovative as opposed to simply replicating new ideas is certainly not just the preserve of the entrepreneur. While discussing the attributes with our dean professor Malcolm Kirkup, his vivid description of the requirements of the director being similar to being able to “nail jelly to the wall” in today’s complex business environment. This is an apt reminder that we have to remain agile and able to draw upon the full range at a moment’s notice. 

Valuable development

A second aspect needed for the development of the professional director is the opportunity to experiment and establish how you would personally perform in a range of organisational contexts. It is not enough to vicariously learn from others; future company leaders should have the opportunity to personally experience real organisations within corporate, not for profit, international and entrepreneurial contexts. This isn’t just about benefiting from the valuable process of in-sector best practice exchange, but to really appreciate and understand where as a professional director you perform at your best. 

While clearing up both corporate scandals and “piles of jelly” from the floor will never be easy, being prepared to expect the unexpected and knowing which strengths and attributes to pull in when needed will help prepare tomorrow’s aspiring board directors.