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Maximising your Board's Collective Intelligence with Karen Leigh Anderson
Episode 1113th January 2023 • Be & Think in the House of Trust • Servane Mouazan
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In this episode of Be & Think in the House of Trust, I am listening to Karen Leigh Anderson, who has over 30 years of business experience and focuses on working as a business adviser to mission-driven businesses. She loves working on governance and has been involved in various boards as a Non-Exec director and Chair too.

Previously based in Johannesburg, Cape Town, London and Edinburgh, Karen has delivered results for IBM, Grant Thornton, InvestecBank, Oracle Corporation; worked with and for technology start-ups before focusing on supporting social entrepreneurs across all areas of their businesses. She is also a skilled Gallup CliftonStrengths® coach, and her Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow report is “Delivering 100 years of Impact.” 

Throughout this episode, Karen shares her insights on how to build a strong board in order to maximise its collective intelligence, and why sometimes it’s the unusual suspects who can add the most value to your board. She also uses her governance dance analogy to explain why a successful business recognises the important relationship between leading and following. 


Highlights from this episode: 

(02:20) I hate pointless icebreakers! 

(04:58) You get the board you plan for 

(10:19) Mission and vision statements should evolve 

(13:43) A people-oriented language 

(17:50) Recruiting the right chairs 

(21:48) The governance dance 


Connect with Karen: 

On LinkedIn: 

On Social Entrepreneur Place: 

Connect with Servane:



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Welcome to the House of Trust. Every week I'm sharing a moment with an inspiring leader who loves to invest in social and environmental change, and together we take the time to be and think beyond skills and competencies about the behaviors and conditions that help you trust and collaborate, deliver on your strategy, and fulfill your mission as an impact investor and an impact leader.

In short, it's about how you can tell one another and the planet. And today I'm inviting you to think about your boards, formal boards, investment committees, and advisory boards. There's something so powerful about them, mysterious even, and sometimes you know, more casual, some boards are impenetrable, fortresses.

From which not much variety comes out and others were a nest of goodness, humanity and efficiency. And to think about boards and governance and, and the glue that holds them, uh, uh, the glue that holds, that holds boards together and makes them supportive entities.

I have with me Karen Lee Anderson, c e o of Social Entrepreneur Place, and Karen, your governance and sustainability advisor to mission-driven businesses. You are a non-exec director and chair of the board of very social, uh, enterprise networks and firms, and you've been based in Johannesburg, in Cape Town, in London, Edinburgh, and, uh, you've worked for prestigious companies like I B M, Grant-Thornton, Investec Bank, Oracle Corporation, et cetera, et cetera.

It's a lot, lot of, lot of work you've done, uh, into, uh, tech startups before focusing on Social entrepreneurs across all areas of their business. And you also recently collaborated with Unltd's latest fund. Um, I just wanted to, uh, flag up that your Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellow report is about delivering hundred years of impact.

Look at that!

Karen, also your pet topic is governance. You even invented the governance dance. What more do we need to know about you?

Oh, that I also love strengths, and I know you do too. So we, you know, governance and strengths are my two real geek topics and, and when I'm talking about strengths, I love using them on board a lot because I think it's, people often talk in terms of icebreakers for getting people together.

I hate those pointless icebreakers, um, I kind of go, why do we just not get down to business? And so I often have a one-hour icebreaker. That's everyone sharing their strengths, uh, because I think that's where people understand how we uniquely contribute to any group. Wow.

Strengths. And you call them and, and is it, so that's someone else calling them talents.

Yes. So the Gallup Clifton Strengths is the tool that I use, and I use that because like Gallup is the data-driven organization, and I love the robustness of the data behind the Gallup Clifton strengths. Mm-hmm. . And, um, they, I've used them for about 20 years in the different startups I've worked in. Um, and nearly 30 million people have used Gallup Clifton's Strengths Finder.

And when Gallup talks about it, they talk about the assessment, identifying. Talents and if you invest in them, they become your strengths. But I like to work with people who are using their talents to the full. So I just talk about strengths cuz I also think if you're doing a strengths assessment, talking about talents just confuses


Oh, right. Okay. Hmm. So that's a good start. , and, and the question I do, you know, the question I hear regularly, uh, am I thinking partnerships either in one-on-one or, uh, with groups about, about back to the boards? About the boards, you know, about the investment committees and they, they say we've got, you know, plenty of members with good strength in finance, for instance. And they ask, there should be more to it than just numbers crunching. So what else should we be thinking about? And then you've got other people who talk about how to increase, uh, the bond and the trust between the people on our board because they don't really connect.

Uh, you know, they're civil with each other. They speak with each other, but it doesn't really gel. So how do we strengthen our foundations to make this collaboration happen for real? And, and we don't necessarily, uh, have to go on holiday together, but at least make good decisions, sound decisions, and, you know, get on well.

and it's, it's a topic that always comes back. So how do we bring people along basically? And how do we use strength to do that? What do you think?

I always say, and in fact, I've recently done blog post on this that you get the board you plan for.

And so I think that the first thing is you actually have to plan for these things and you can't take for granted that because you've got a board of people who are experienced and competent professionals who have been on other committees and other boards before that they necessarily know how to.

The way you want them to be on the board. You've got, and I think that there're two differences in this. The first one is being really intentional about your investment processes because you want to support disruptive change in the world. If you're investing in social environmental change, you simply cannot do the same things you've done before.

So you need to be intentional about that and you need to remind the people on your board that what you're doing is different from any other board they've been on, cuz the focus is different. And then you also need to. Recognize that if you aren't intentional and different about your board processes, whether the investment committee or any of the different groups you discussed Servane, if you are not intentional about that difference, then how can you support the organizations you invest in to own governance differently?

Because the sort of predominant worldview in growing businesses and in investment does not naturally include the change. Does not nationally include impact. And so how do you help the boards of those organizations you're investing in and your boards do governance differently to open everybody's eyes to the fact that it's, you're doing something different at its heart.

Mm. So change is not guaranteed, change doesn't happen necessarily. You need to have a strong intention. So how does it work in practice? You need to have an intention. And how do you come in, Karen, what do you do?

So I think the first thing is, um, genuinely looking at who and how you recruit to be on your board.

And so I think you, you need to try and make the makeup of the board as, as diverse as possible in a sense of diversity of thoughts as much as what people look like or identify as, or present as I think, and, and the way you encourage people to do that is you make your recruitment process much more intentional and you don't have the same description that everyone else has.

You seek out and you are explicit that you want people with different experiences. I would suggest you don't use the same recruitment company if you do via a recruitment company. I would even suggest you don't recruit via the same platforms that you would normally recruit by and that you actively seek networks where you can get people who are different.

Um, so I was, I helped. Found, uh, an organization called Changing the Chemistry. Mm-hmm. , uh, and that was over 10 years ago. And, and they focus on changing the chemistry of boards and that's across all types of boards. And, and, and so you could put adverts up there, you could use Women on boards, which isn't only women.

They, they, but they focus is again, really diverse. There are a couple of organizations, I mean, Savan, your network is really diverse. So promoting so, so I think the way you do it, but also. don't take for granted that you have to have a boring recruitment pack. You know, have your values and your expectations in that pack.

Mm-hmm. , and, and part of this is not the pack . This is you distilling what's special and what you actually want the board to look like. So there's a lot of thought that goes into one or two words in a pack that tells people, oh, actually they want. because most people will be a little bit wary of being on a board within the investment space.

The, and I'm talking about most people, who are the people you want to add that energy and that difference are the ones who are gonna be wary. The people who are gonna step up are gonna be the people who've done it before who think it's exactly the same as every other investment committee or every other board they've been on.

They're gonna go, oh yeah, that's me. Whereas you actually want to jar it. You want them. I'm not sure I like that idea. You know, I want, you wanna put them off? You wanna put off the usual suspects and open it up to the unusual suspects. Let's

the unusual suspects. Okay. . So we, we're taking, so we're not there, we're not talking, uh, at the moment we're not yet maximizing the board's collective intelligence.

We need to do the work, the homework before I. Who's who, how are we recruiting? Who are we talking to? What words are we using? And I, and I know that because I've, I've worked with you in the past and, and now, and I know that there are words, for instance, that really, um, uh, light up my, my. My light bulb, like the word connecting or the word, uh, reflection or the word?

Uh, many different words. And what, what's, what can you say around that? What can, how do you want to make sure that you get, you know, the strategies, the connectors, the influencers? How, what words do you use? Well, where'd you play with words?

Well, I think there have to be words that work for you as an organization and, and I think, you know, most of the boards and committees that you and I are talking might have been around for a while.

Mm-hmm. And so it's quite useful to go, when did you go? Hmm, that one didn't work. So it's kinda like, when did you have to say no? When did you have to go? Can we manage them out because they're just too much of one thing rather than the other. So I think it's sometimes quite useful to go, what do we stand?

and we notice what we stand for when we have to say no, we're not that. I think it's really quite helpful to go, first of all, we don't want those words because then you go, well, what would be the words we do want? And I think every organization's different. And I, and I think the problem is people take a mission or vision statement that's being created at the start of an organization.

I think stick it in. And that might be why you got the money in your fund. Fine. But actually, you know, start to sort of resonate. So some, so I work with someone who uses the word kind and then I go, well, can we have some val, some behavior that shows what we think is kind. Yeah, I, I think. You know, one of the words that you might use is professional, but actually then some people would be put off and go, well, I'm not a professional investment person.

Whereas actually what you want, people who are financially literate with common sense are gonna go, well, that's never gonna work. You know, why are we gonna put money in this Where, where there's this piece missing in the plan? That doesn't make any sense. So do we get them to, to have a conversation with us as potential investees differently?

You know, I, I. . So instead of saying professional, the word intentional might be really useful. It's like we want people who are intentional about how many is used to change the world. Mm-hmm. rather than we want people with professional finance qualifications. Now they, you might very well look at the skills and experience and want, you definitely want some people on your board who have professional finance qualifications.

You wanna exclude them, but I think you'll be overwhelmed with those ones anyway. So let's just try and pick the ones who go. I never thought of being on a board. I'd like to do things differently. You know, put, we want people to do investment committees differently. Mm-hmm. , we want you to bring a different mindset because we're trying to invest in different organizations.

You know, how, how can we use our money to support change? How could we use our money to be a bit more activist? How could we use our money to be more disruptive or those words that we normally see?

Hmm. And I can guess even disruptive might require a few more explanations. Yeah. Okay. So imagine your board is, uh, you've done your recruitment and it's all set up and people have been receiving their induction packs.

Everything is fine and, and done properly, and now you are a few months in and uh, and there's a routine that settles in how do you want to keep things light and on fire and, uh, Not a bad fire, but energizing for everybody. How do you wanna maximize your board's collective intelligence then? So

I would say just one addition to the induction.

That's where maybe doing something, I mean, I would always say doing the strengths test would be useful because if you, as part of induction said, Everyone older, new people are gonna be participating together and you can do it online. And I've, I've done it really effectively online cuz I had to over the last two years.

But I think it's really nice to feed people. I get them to have coffee and chat and get them to talk about. The strengths and the, the difference between talking about the strengths in terms of the way Gallup does it and talking about your experience and skills is it's much more personal and it's much more when you're in the flow and what you're passionate about.

And people laugh, they, they kind of are. They, they love going, oh yeah, that's me. And oh yeah, yeah, I do have 20 lists, or I can't delete emails, or I always delete emails. And those are not the kind of conversations that you normally have on a board cuz you're just going in at the, I'm a professional and I'm here to do this.

And so that I think helps with that deep connection. And it also means that if you bring in a little bit of. Even conscious strengths, reflections, you know, a good board would be covering the key issues on KPIs, on risk, and, and, and, and maybe you have a strengths input in going. Okay, so just what we've decided to do is this week we are looking at this, this board meeting.

We are looking at this. I know that your activator and your maximizer and your this and this are gonna be really, really helpful. Or can we all just park the strengths of. To action at the door. And can we, so, so using a strengths language a little bit more consciously, constantly reminds people of their uniqueness, but also reminds them of what they have in common with everyone else.

And it just gives a, a different language. It's a people-orientated language. It's not about numbers that allows people to go, oh, so how do you think your futuristic and your strategic would really help us invest differently today? So I was thinking when you posed this question, It's almost like using the Edward DeBono hats.

Thinking hats thing where you go, you put this hat on and this hat on. But it's, it's much more personal because it's like, I know I bring these top five strengths and today I'm gonna use this one. So Servane, you lead with the strength of empathy that everyone misunderstands cuz they think it's about thinking about other people.

It's about feeling. And so you lead with that. So if we had a meeting. and you were in the room and we, and you said, today I'm showing up and using my empathy. So I really wanna sense where you are all at. I wanna know where the people we are investing are all at, and I wanna connect with them emotionally.

That would be one way of showing up. That's kind of a De Bono Hat, but not really. And equally, if someone was coming in with context, it's a thinking strength. It's all about, I say it's like bringing their past in a backpack on your back. Mm-hmm. . And it's my past. It's the world's past. It's like everything.

You know, I might say, well, well what do we know about these people? What's the context of this investment? What's the con? Where did our money come from? And how is, how is where our money comes from gonna help?

Hmm. So that's, that's funny cuz I know one of my strength is also that w w would've been, would have been a connection with connectedness and, and strategy.

Yes. Where I'll probably see a relation between everything that moves around me and I can see that. That logic, although I never use the word logic, but also see where we can all go together with that. And my problem is that I might leave a few people along the curve. Cause wait a minute, it's going a little bit too fast.

Can't you see it? I would say, uh, no,.

And that's also where using The Gallup strengths in a board meeting would be when you say that someone goes, okay, so your connectedness and strategies, just getting a bit out of hand here. So we need everyone to reverse and to slow down. And it doesn't mean that we are saying: Servane you are behaving weirdly.

It's just that strength of yours is a bit maxed up right now. So we're just gonna tone it down.

Right, because I think, yeah. Oh. Um, and the, the, the key point is that when your strength is a bit maxed out, it becomes a little bit of a handicap, as in it's weighing a little bit too much. And also you don't bring people along.

Yeah, so there's the strength. You invite people to have a discussion, to really make sure that they understand where everybody's coming from and how we can maximize these, these, these talents so that we can use them in the right possible way. When we make decisions, how do we remember to do that?

I do think one of the challenges on boards is, um, , we don't recruit the right chairs.

Mm-hmm. . And I think we often, and, and I constantly have to talk entrepreneurs down and go on this, this person's a chair, they're amazing. And I'm like, well actually why are they amazing? Well, they've got this profile and they're this, and, and in effect they're describing a champion to me. They're not describing a chair.

A good chair is someone who holds the board. To account and safe and facilitates that board to be great. And so a chair needs to be a lot more thoughtful, intentional, and I think the way the chair leads the board would support them to remember this. And so, you know, Gallup have done data around high-performing teams and they've actually said that a team that looks brilliant with lots and lots of shiny experience and the team is kind of average.

Um, the way they perform depends on how they. and an average team that's led where everyone is in the flow and delivering to their best will outperform the shiny sparkly. Mm. And with all of Gallup's huge amount of data, it's really great that they can do that. Cause they have large corporates and they can literally look at teams in a really deep way.

But, um, we don't think of chairs as there to hold the board safe. We don't. Think of chairs as people who are there to facilitate other people speaking rather than them speaking. You know, the chair is not a figurehead. The chair is there to hold that meeting and get it towards an end goal. And if the chairs aim for that meeting is to sign off X number of things, they will manage it very differently from if Theta's goal for the meeting is for everybody to engage.

To the best of their ability to sign off for those four things. And so I, I think when we are talking about recruitment and, um, it, it, it's really helpful to recruit chairs with a, a slightly different job description and kind of say, you know, this is your role to be intentional, to get the best out of everyone.

And I think part of the reason why we, we take, we don't think about chairs that way, is we assume that by this time you're a NED, you know, you're a real grown. and you've done all these other things and so you, you, you are arriving fully formed, ready to be a director, and that's not true. , you know, I think we wouldn't expect even a c E O who we also would expect to be arriving fully formed, ready to deliver.

We would never just go. Right. You look brilliant. You've done this. Come in and just do your thing. We would end up them, we would give them space. We would support them. We would say, this is how we wanna do it. Oh, you might have done six different been a c e o of six different organizations before, and we want you to come in and bring newness, but you can't dump this stuff.

You know, we're a different organization. What is it that's different? So that's where it comes back to that thinking and planning and going, what's different about us? How do we want to help the directors be the best they can be in our board? Which will be different if we consciously choose it to be different from every other board they've been on.

Hmm. It tells me that there, that requires some presence from the chair as well and not just hammering people with stuff and Yeah. And, um, knowledge and stuff, but, uh, uh, so presence and listening skills and have conversation with someone you know as well recently who, uh, is the CEO of a company and who was looking at changing her board.

But of course, . They want, um, they want everybody to listen to each other. She needs, she needs more space. More space for people's ideas, more people, people initiative. It really needs to be a more, sort of a more of a dance. . There we are. . There we are. I'm laughing because you are the governance dance expert.

Jeanie, the Jeanie in the governance dance bottle. So Karen, can you tell us about the governance dance a little bit. Just for people to know more because that's a mysterious thing. ,

So the governance ca dance came out of people getting confused between roles in organizations? Yes. And there is a founder and a member or a shareholder, and there are directors and there are.

People who do stuff basically. Mm-hmm. and I, I realized that, um, people always get confused. And so when I started with legal structures and investment work, I was, I found myself naturally moving and going, no, no, no. Let's, let's imagine this space is about the owners and the founders and the shareholders, and what you're talking about is not in that space.

It's here. And so instead of moving my hands around, I ended up moving my body and going. No, no. I asked you a question about this one, and then I'd move across and go, not this one. Um, and, and that allowed me to start to explain to people the differences. And I had a conversation yesterday with someone who's trying to set, start an organization and she wants investment.

And I was going, so no, you're not clear. , you're not telling me who's the founder. Mm-hmm. . So she goes, no, no, I'm the founder. And I said, but you've just told me you want this person involved. How do you want them to be involved? Do you want them to be a co-founder? Are you gonna give them shares? Mm-hmm. , or are you gonna make them an equal member?

No, no, I want them to be, she didn't say no. She said yes I do. I want them to be on my board. I'm like, that's a completely different thing. You've kind of skipped from a founder and a shareholder and a member to a director. They're different. These ones directors are accountable to founders. And then of course all entrepreneurs get confused cause they're in all three

Um, , but also I. I have taken the dance metaphor further when I've been supporting people with culture because I think there's something about, uh, dancing and following that's really important cuz people think that following is a passive. Like thing. And, and so when you're talking about the chair having presence, you also need the, the people who follow and participate to engage.

Because I've got medals in, in ballroom and Latin dancing and I've taught it and, and teaching people how to follow is as important as teaching people how to lead. And part of it is the hold and, and you have to. Firm hold because if you are trying to lead someone and they, uh, and my arm's firmly leading , it's like all over the place.

So you have to step into the dance, uh, in order to follow. and you have to be as, you have to push back, you have to hold the space with the person who's leading. And also someone sets the tune. So I, I think people, and to me that's the values and the, the culture. And so it's going, is this a rumba or this a waltz?

And, and are you prepared to do a Rumba or a Waltz? Because if you're not, then don't step in. And if we don't tell you it's a Rumba or a Waltz, which is, we don't tell you this is how we're gonna do it. , we don't tell you the beat, we don't tell you the rhythm and we're not explicit about it. Then you're gonna come in thinking it's a waltz, cuz you've been on every other ball that was a Waltz and now someone's going, no, no, this is a rapper.

No, no, no, no, no, no. So if we don't tell them in setting the the values, we aren't really explicit in saying, this is how we wanna do it. And set the beat, set the rhythm, and the leader doesn't say, I'm leading and I'm clear and I know where I'm going. But you have to come in and hold. And be firm and follow consciously and intentionally knowing, knowing what rhythm you're following.

It's helpful. It's so beautiful. Cuz I can see you on our, my screen now and you have this beautiful gesture, that firm hand-in-hand hold. And so I understand now why some boards are just window dressers. Oh my God. So this is so insightful. Thank you so much, Karen, for your insights on, uh, that. Dance, that governance dance and also how you maximize people's talents and strengths and how you have them to be a bit more present.

And also these discussions and these, these dance analogies just make the boards ever so more interesting and, and, and, you know, to be in a drag, if it's just a repeat, repeat, repeat and play or what you've, uh, seen somewhere else. At the risk of not being, um, uh, efficient and and helpful for the new organization you're helping.

So thank you Karen, and it was a pleasure to have you again, uh, in the House of Trust. And I hope everyone that you took a lot of notes because there's a lot to do on your board, on your new board, on your existing board. Karen, where can we find you?

Well on LinkedIn, Karen Leigh Anderson, it's really easy.

Or my website, social entrepreneur Mm-hmm. or on Twitter? Uh, SocentTraveler.

Excellent. So we'll be sharing all this in our, uh, podcast notes. And thank you so much. Thank you so much, Karen.

Thank you for having me, Servane.

Oh, I love how Karen reminded us to look at the differences we want to bring into the world as collectives, investment groups, et cetera, and what needs to happen in practical terms if we want to bring this to life.

It starts with being intentional about the people we want to work with, how we think together. The chairs who organize us, how we select the board members, but also the colleagues we recruit. But it's also about how we treat each other when we think and make decisions together. It's a reminder we can all contribute uniquely to a project, a venture, or a vision, but we need to make space for it

So I'd so love you to let me know how you get on with that governance dance.

So thank you again everybody for listening to that new conversation in the House of Trust. Next time I'll be talking to the optimistic VC, Zoe Peden. Zoe will tell us a story or two about social mobility. Can you become an investor when you're not from that ecosystem?

The whole podcast series is available to listen to anywhere you love to find your podcasts, and it's completely free. So share the love.

For more Conscious Innovation insights, events and wayfinding resources, check my website,, and subscribe to my monthly updates. I can't wait to see you next time on Be and Think in the House of Trust.



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