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The New Director's chair

Elephant in the Boardroom? It’s the Director’s Role to Raise Tough Topics

July 1, 2019

For the next installment of our interview series with top directors, my colleague David Reimer, the CEO of Merryck & Co. Americas, and I sat down with Lynn Crump-Caine, the former executive vice president of worldwide operations and restaurant systems at McDonald’s, who serves on the boards of Thrivent Financial, Advocate Aurora Health and Wingstop Restaurants, where she is the lead independent director. We’re also proud to call her a colleague at Merryck, as she recently joined our team of stellar mentors.

Elephant in the Boardroom? It’s the Director’s Role to Raise Tough Topics

Reimer: What are some key lessons you’ve learned as a director?

Crump-Caine: I would tell any new director to just jump in. I learned that myself. I’m not a shy person around the boardroom table, but the fresh perspective that a new director brings is always needed. So don’t hold back. Even if you have questions that you think might not be meaningful, you should ask them, because most often nobody else around the table is going to ask them.

And bring your expertise. You were asked to join the board for a reason. While there may already be a strategy in place, that doesn’t mean that you should not offer your expertise. People often wonder where they should play to add the most value in board discussions. They should start with their area of expertise.

Reimer: How do you get a sense of a company’s culture when you’re considering joining a board?

Crump-Caine: I’m going to talk to as many of its directors as I possibly can. I’m a fan of face-to-face conversations for something like this. Even if I have to pay for it myself, I’m going to fly to see you, one way or another. The demeanor, the eye contact – nothing replaces that, and it gives me more than I would certainly get in a phone conversation.

Bryant: What role do you typically play on a board?

Crump-Caine: Often it’s to ask the questions that typically aren’t asked, and to put the big hairy audacious issue on the table for us to consider. I’m in a situation now where there’s a culture of “Minnesota nice,” and things need to be said or at least put on the table. Sometimes directors will talk about something in private, but I’m the one who will bring it up for the broader discussion.

Bryant: Are there particular tactics you will use to introduce the elephant in the room?

Crump-Caine: You have to be respectful as you set the table for the discussion, and to give the CEO a way to play smartly and safely with the topic and then not attribute the topic to anyone. If I am having a conversation or aware of something that has happened in private that should be surfaced, I will ask permission from that person to bring it up for broader discussion without attributing it to them, or even to present as my own thoughts if they prefer that I do that. They trust me to set the table for the topic in a way that’s going to add some level of comfort for everybody.

Bryant: What have been some key influences of your leadership style?

Crump-Caine: I’m passionate about culture, and the importance of communicating in ways that inspire people to do things. Telling people what to do doesn’t work. I saw a senior executive once send out an edict to the field about changing the way we handled something, and he was frustrated because half of the people essentially ignored him, and continued doing it the way they had always done it.

But these were people who were leading independent business units. You just don’t send out a memo to change something important and expect that the culture somehow will automatically support such a dramatic change. People don’t respond well to being treated in an authoritative manner. You have treat them as partners, and to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

Bryant: What about earlier influences in your life?

Crump-Caine: My great-aunt was the matriarch of my family on my mother’s side, and a lot of what was imparted to me, and planted in my DNA, came from my mom and my grandmother. It’s nothing lofty, just basic values of treating people like you want to be treated, being honest, even if that comes with the expense of suffering some consequences, and integrity, integrity, integrity.

I value communications because that was another thing that my mom and my aunt imparted. You can solve almost anything if you talk about it. “People can’t help you if they don’t know something,” they would say all the time. There’s no point sitting around and stewing about something. You have to talk about it. People want to be in that safe environment for advancing anything, whether it’s personal or business.

The other thing they would say is that you cannot say the words “I can’t.” You could say “I don’t want to,” or “I don’t like this,” but you weren’t allowed to say, “I can’t.” You had to try, and most often you discovered that you had so much more in yourself than you thought. That helped me evolve as a person and as a leader. It allowed me to have the courage to take on things before I perhaps was ready for them.

Reimer: What is your framework for thinking about culture?

Crump-Caine: It’s the unwritten rules of how people interact and how business is done. My point of reference for it is, what are the unwritten rules when there’s a tough conversation that needs to be had? How does that happen? And have there been times when decisions were made and then you see a lot of pocket vetoes, with people talking about decisions outside the meetings? That tells me a lot about the culture.

How comfortable are people putting things on the table that need to be discussed? And how does the CEO and the management team react? That is a big indicator about culture. How did they behave? Was it well received? Were people defensive?

Reimer: You’re a woman of color who’s had very senior global roles. How do you help sharpen conversations at the board level about diversity?

Crump-Caine: I am aware that some people will expect that any person of color would bring up these issues. But given where I am at this stage of my career, I will bring it up because it’s important for all the obvious reasons.

I think that most companies and most people are at a place where they understand that diversity is right and necessary, on a lot of different levels. But I’m perfectly comfortable bringing it up, even if other people aren’t as comfortable with the topic, because I’m going to bring it up in a way that’s caring and shows concern for not just the business, but other people. And usually we have a pretty rich dialogue about it.

Thirty years ago, the only difference in my approach may have been that I would have had the conversation one-on-one. I might have sought out the highest-ranking leader to make some comments and ask some questions – is this something we’re looking at? – but I would have never been silent on it. The difference is that now I am considering the environment less and just choosing to be me, which is going to be respectful of all people and bringing it up regardless.

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