The Art of Speaking Up: Cultivating Courage in the Boardroom
Experienced board chair Kristi Honey shares important tips for communicating clearly and authentically.
By Kristi Honey
There is tremendous power in truth and what you do with yours. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is, “Once you’ve earned your seat at the boardroom table, you have a duty to share your perspective.” We know diverse teams make better decisions, and the investments organizations make to diversify the voices around the table lead to better results — better teams, increased profits, and more thoughtful outcomes. Still, finding the courage to speak up around any table can be difficult, particularly if you’re new to the team and environment.
Demonstrating courage in any setting doesn’t mean being aggressive or reckless. It’s about being authentic, standing up for what you believe in, being resilient in the face of challenges, and remaining positive, open, and respectful. You will earn respect and demonstrate professionalism by articulating your position in a way that is thoughtful — even if you’re a dissenting or contrary voice in the room.
I have had the benefit of being seated at several tables where my voice and perspective offered a unique lens. In my early career, I approached these scenarios with hesitation and would often share my contrary opinion before or after the meeting. I took an indirect route to ensure my voice was heard and that decision-makers had the information needed to make informed choices.
This approach worked well for me for many years. I was seen as collaborative, engaged, non-confrontational, and supportive. What I didn’t realize was how this approach minimized and undermined my overall success and robbed the team of the benefit of the discussion and synergies that may have been realized. It also taught others to silence themselves.
Leading by example and speaking up — even when it’s hard — has allowed me to demonstrate leadership, build confidence, and mentor others.
An example of this is when I had to resolve a conflict between two organizations as chair of a board. In attendance was the chair of the board of the other organization, myself, and senior leadership. Quickly, the issue became personal, and two men stood and began arguing. I attempted to meet the eyes of the fellow chair, thinking that he would jump in to de-escalate the situation, but this didn’t happen. Mustering all my courage, I stood up to meet both men at near eye level, and interrupted the argument, stating, “This discussion has become personal. We are here to resolve this matter. Let’s sit down and get back to the agenda — we need to find a path forward together.” I was calm and kept my body language non-confrontational while remaining firm and directive. To my surprise, that’s exactly what they both agreed to do, and the conversation was redirected.
The following is my best advice on how to find your courage in the boardroom, or in the workplace.
Build Self-Confidence: Recognize and embrace your strengths — know your skills, qualifications, area of expertise, and what you value and stand for. Practice speaking up on topics you know well, this will cultivate added self-confidence to build the capacity to speak up on other agenda items where you are not the expert. I have found it is much easier to speak up when I know I am doing so in total alignment with my integrity, my values, and speaking the truth. I am careful of my words and use language that doesn’t insert innuendo or have the potential to be misleading. By taking this approach and ensuring a calm, compassionate, and professional energy regardless of the emotion around any topic, I am confident in my approach, my questions, and my perspective. Another approach I learned from a friend is to ask open-ended questions in a tone that truly indicates you are trying to better understand.
Build Relationships: Get to know your fellow directors and senior leadership team outside the boardroom. Seek to listen and learn from your teammates — what are they passionate about, where do their interests lie, how do they spend their free time? By developing a relationship outside the boardroom, you can rely on these relationships by having built rapport and demonstrating yourself as a credible professional. Build relationships relevant to the organization outside the boardroom as well — seek opportunities to collaborate or help others, and try attending events and networking with relevant people and organizations.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: Attend meetings thoroughly prepared. Read the agenda and contemplate questions ahead of the meeting. Stay up-to-date on the company and industry, trends, and market conditions. Search the news for new developments about the organization, competitors, or industry and regulations that might be relevant to agenda discussions. This will boost your confidence and allow for more meaningful contributions.
Embrace Your Unique Perspective: As said, you have earned a seat at the table, and you now have an obligation to share your unique perspective, even when it’s hard. Sometimes, I will start a contrary opinion by acknowledging the diverse thoughts I’m bringing to the table. I begin my thought by making statements like, “I have a unique perspective on this I’d like to share,” “At the risk of providing a contrary view, I’d like to share my thoughts,” or, “I have some experience with this that may be different.”
Strong Communication Skills: Build your communication skills by articulating your ideas and perspectives calmly, clearly, and concisely. If a topic is particularly sensitive, I speak slowly and am very mindful of my words. I take accountability for my part in any issues or problems and use this as a tactic to de-escalate the situation. I am conscious of my demeanour, and if I am angry, upset, or triggered by a particular discussion, I take a deep breath (or several) to be sure I can remain professional and demonstrate my highest emotional intelligence. I’ve had to preface comments with, “I’d like to share my perspective on this, and want to acknowledge I am biased (or sensitive) about this issue…” It is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge your feelings and emotions ahead of sharing an opinion that is difficult for one to discuss. We are all human.
Listen: Remember, effective communication skills mean active listening and knowing when not to weigh in or share. Sometimes, the best approach is a discussion outside the room, away from the table. Courage also means knowing when to remain silent, listen, and create a safe and supportive place for others to share. If there is ambiguity or innuendo shared by others that could lead to confusion, I offer others support by seeking clarity and saying, “I would like to clarify for my own understanding…”
Take Risks: Advocate for yourself by stepping outside your comfort zone. Volunteer for challenging assignments or projects and proposing innovative or non-traditional solutions. Build your reputation on the team by delivering (even over-delivering if you can!) on any action items to which you are assigned.
Seek Feedback: Be open to receiving feedback and actively seek it from a trusted fellow director or the Chair. Take ownership and responsibility for your actions and decisions, without shifting blame or deflecting.
Support & Recognize Others: Create a supportive environment that acknowledges, supports, and recognizes the opinions, contributions, and accomplishments of others. I do this by leaning in when someone is sharing something I know may be difficult, offering my undivided attention, smiling, and showing compassion and encouragement. I also enjoy congratulating fellow directors on any of their accomplishments or awards and acknowledgements in front of others, as appropriate, like, “Did you see that Gary was recognized in The Globe and Mail this week?”
Build Resilience: Being courageous requires persistence and perseverance. It is not a one-time act — it is an ongoing mindset that requires resilience, continuing to learn from your experiences, refining your approaches (reflecting on what worked and did not work), and continuing to practice and build capabilities. Do not be discouraged by setbacks — continuously learn and improve your skills and resilience.
Continuous Learning: Invest in your growth, and continuously learn and stay open to differing ideas and perspectives. Invest in good governance training such as Competent Boards and Directors Education Program, if you haven’t already, to ensure you’re clear on staying at the governance level and not delving into operational topics. Join the Institute of Corporate Directors, and Women Get On Board to network and further your education.
I would be remiss not to also share that I have seen many attempts at courage around the boardroom table by taking a highly divisive approach. I have never seen that lead to positive relationships or outcomes. Taking an adversarial position leads to an adversarial reaction — in my experience, there are no winners here. Leave your ego and any need to be right, outside the room. Speak authentically and mindfully; people will be more apt to listen and stay open to sharing a differing perspective. Certainly, this was critical in my success as Chair to bring any discussions that got derailed back on track.
By demonstrating courage in the boardroom, or around any table, you create a positive and inspiring culture that will benefit the team and inspire and teach others how they can add value to the seat they have earned.