Everyday Matters: The tone at the top is important

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 11 - April 17, 2016.


“A good leader takes more than their fair share of the blame and gives more than their fair share of the credit.” — Arnold Glasgow, Scottish entrepreneur and philanthropist


The celebrated musician Datuk Johari Salleh did not disappoint. Standing in front of Orkestra Kuala Lumpur on that beautiful February night in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, he gave a masterful display of conductorship, leading the ensemble through medleys of songs that both enchanted and entranced the audience.

Indeed, if you were looking for “the conductor as metaphor for leadership”, you could get no better example than his performance that night.

His demeanour was engaging and inspiring. As he conducted his musicians, one could sense that he knew every bar on the music sheet as well as the parts for each instrument and how he wanted them played.

When he was through, and as the audience rose in unison for a standing ovation, Johari insisted that the entire orchestra rise to take their bows, and hurried from the stage. Eventually making his way back to the podium, he again refused the solo bow and would only be recognised with the entire cast that night. Bravo, maestro!

Johari’s love for his music is well known. That night, he showed that he knew his purpose — to produce beautiful and inspiring music. He knew his subject in amazing detail and he knew how to get the best out of his musicians by empowering them. He was authentic and humble in a confident way.

Business, like music, must be conducted well in order to bring joy to the shareholders and stakeholders alike. It must be managed profitably, with minimum expenses and disruptions in order to remain sustainable.

In a company, as in an orchestra, the tone at the top is important. Well-rounded and soulful, it guides the people towards an agreed-upon goal, cajoling and stretching their ability along the way. Shrill and disjointed, it divides the organisation and leaves people flailing about, uncertain how to move forward.

While the world is still in awe of the charismatic CEO and his seemingly superhuman managerial abilities, the tone at the top must actually begin with the company’s board of directors. We sometimes forget that a strong organisational resource resides in the form of the company’s board. And the often unsung hero of the epic is the chairman of the board.

The board of directors is the apex body of an organisation. It is normally a collection of individuals of a certain standing and experience that have been invited to guide the CEO and his management team in the course of their jobs. They probe and challenge management ideas and proposals, and once in agreement, support the management in operationalising these ideas and proposals.

The board provides entrepreneurial leadership and sets strategic objectives to ensure the long-term success of the organisation. If an organisation were a boat, then the board is the rudder. As such, putting together an effective board is of utmost importance.

The selection of new board members will often impact the future of the company more than any other board decision, with the possible exception of the selection of senior management.

And the choice of the right chairman of the board is more important than any other — for it is he who sets the tone of the board.

Just like the conductor, the chairman must be able to control the dynamics of the board. He must ensure that the members of the board are able to communicate and challenge each other to ensure optimal contribution during discussions and discourses. He must also ensure that communication between the board and the management team is effective.

Only then can the decisions made at the board be implemented at the operational level. The chairman, like our conductor, must know the song sheet well and guide his board and management accordingly.

Together with the board, the chairman has to determine the main challenges the company faces as well as potential challenges and opportunities going forward. The needs of the company must be clearly established and periodically re-established.

It is easier if the company were a family-owned business, as the objectives of the company and the shareholders would be aligned. The chairman in this instance would normally be the patriarch or the matriarch of the family, and in Asian companies, mama or papa hold sway.

But with professionally established corporations, the chairman has a more difficult role. This is because not much attention is given to the proper recruitment of his board members. Despite a lot of discussions in conferences and seminars, and findings in many studies, Malaysian companies today continue to rely on the old boys’ network to rope in new directors. A poorly constructed board may nullify the board’s function as a strong oversight body on behalf of stakeholders and shareholders alike.

To construct a strong new board for the benefit of the company, the chairman must embark on an honest assessment of the collective skills and attributes of the existing board. Only then can the company ascertain the gaps in expertise, experience or perspective that needs to be filled on its board. And only then can the search for the right candidate to fill the position begin.

So you see, there is little difference between populating an orchestra like the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and that of a good company board. As with the musicians in the orchestral pit, the board must comprise individuals of differing backgrounds, knowledge and skills.

Ensuring that these knowledge and skillsets contribute to the success of the company, the chairman, like the conductor, must ensure they are playing from the same sheet, employing the same positive mindset. Then and only then will they help produce music to the ears of their respective audiences.

Zakie Shariff sits on the board of two local universities and has a deep interest in developing strong corporate leaders