Board Members and Executives Are Humans Too

Board Members and Executives Are Humans Too

Leading with Authenticity and Purpose

Many organizations are recognizing the power and importance of human connections at work: from a stronger focus on organizational purpose to employee initiatives that serve their communities, to business resource groups (BRGs) and increased focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Where these efforts at the organization level are becoming mainstream – at least for organizations that take themselves and their employees seriously – turning the spotlight on the executive team and Boards themselves is less common and often quite novel still.

At KennedyFitch, we seek to contribute to a deeper understanding of reshaping organizational strategies beyond the conventional models that solely focus on shareholders. In partnership with IRG, we recently interviewed 30+ CHROs and experts to provide a fresh outlook on navigating the complexities of humanized growth, as we are not just observers of the shifting tides in business.

Our consulting practice is dedicated to helping organizations and leaders navigate the complex journey toward aligning their purpose, business impact, and people strategy. An important – yet often uncommon – starting point is the practice of helping executive teams and the Board explore and embrace their own humanness in how they lead and work together.

We sat down with Sander van Muijen, one of the consulting partners at KennedyFitch, focusing on leadership development and executive coaching. As a practitioner and scholar, his expertise and also part-time PhD research are built on a strong passion for guiding Boards and executive teams to lead with humanity and confidence in times of uncertainty and the shift to becoming stakeholder-centric.

Board members and Executives as humans

“Too often, when working with executive teams and boards, little attention is given to what each executive or board member brings to the table – beyond their professional experience and skills. Who are they as human beings, what makes them tick and are they passionate about? What are their hopes and fears, strengths/super powers and also the shadow/dark sides of their leadership? In essence: what’s their personal story that is unique and authentic to each of them?”

Sander experience in his team coaching efforts is that it is not yet common for executive teams and boards to really know and open up to each other beyond more functional levels. The possible impacts: superficial levels of trust, limited transparency and suboptimal collaboration.

“Although team development efforts at lower levels of leadership are more mainstream now (e.g. team onboarding; bonding sessions; sharing personality and preferences), we still encounter executive teams and boards who haven’t invested the time and effort of really knowing each other in a more personal and human level. Where it may be common sense, it remains uncommon practice – and can prevent overall effectiveness in decision making, discussing more challenging topics openly, and balancing often diverse stakeholder needs.

Dominant paradigm: keep your cards to the chest

Where ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and increased focus on helping employees feel comfortable to be their unique self at work, the dominant paradigm when it comes to senior leaders and boards is still quite different. Although rarely voiced explicitly, a common paradigm is to lead or govern with an as-neutral-as-possible business-oriented perspective.

However the premise that executives are somehow enlightened beyond the impact of their personal background or their emotions is simply untrue. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially those close enough to witness the dynamics, but hasn’t resulted in a common acceptance that their humanness should be invited and embraced when working together.

The vulnerability of openly discussing and exploring their more personal backgrounds makes space for the personal stories that make these leaders who they are – as unique and talented individuals. But disclosing their more personal sides frequently meets with an uncomfortable reluctance. The platitude that ‘it’s lonely at the top’ is frequently confessed when venturing into a program that asks each executive or board member to consider their unique stories, next to apprehension about being vulnerable together.

Somehow, executives and board members who reach the pinnacle of the corporate governance pyramid are also impacted by self-interest and power struggles. The last thing you want is to show your vulnerability and give insight into your emotional landscape – resulting in guarded and careful behavior that hinders free exchange of diverse perspectives and full independence that our corporate governance model assumes.


Another dominant paradigm is an ‘action-bias’ tendency that can prevent prioritizing and taking the time to deepen personal relationships. Especially when under pressure and the agenda is already overflowing with urgent matters, making time for building deep trust and relationships will always go at the expense of other priorities. Only Chairs and CEOs convinced of the merits and importance of making space for the humanness of their fellow board members or executives will prioritize this – and if needed even influence their fellow board members or C-level executives to embrace this.

Beyond storytelling: courage and story-catching.

The importance and impact of storytelling is now widely accepted and frequently included in senior development programs. But the assumed activity at the receiving end of storytelling is not so common yet; what does it require to open up to each other’s story, and respond with empathy and appreciation? From human to human? As necessary conditions for success to embrace and acknowledge each other’s humanness, it takes courage for executives to share their stories beyond the social norms of ‘keeping your cards to the chest’ or making the time and space for appropriate story-catching.

“From an academic angle, researchers have struggled over the years to access the C- and Board levels. This is largely attributed to their reluctance to open up to outsider scrutiny. The result? We still know little about the cognitive, relational and emotional dynamics at the executive team and Boards – and the reason I focus my executive PhD-research on better understanding how to support execs and boards with their own effectiveness, especially in times of transformational change.”

The Road Ahead

Acknowledging and accepting that – even – executives and Board members are humans first is fundamental to humanized growth. Sander reminds us that before any professional roles, we are humans first. “Our time in leadership positions or any professional career is just a temporary phase in our broader human existence. It is so important to not lose sight of our humanity during our professional roles.” The way forward in our leadership approach is to encourage expressing our humanness, which in turn invites others within the organization to do the same. “Leaders who embrace their own and each other’s humanity, and reflect this in their leadership style, gain a credibility and respect that can’t be feigned by skillful communicators or speech writers.”

Sander advocates a shift in perspective that places human values and connections at the core of leadership and organizational growth strategies. This involves sharing our stories and recognizing each other as humans first, Board members or executives second, to ensure that this human approach touches every part of their work together. “It is often heart-warming to hear stories of hardship, adversity, courage, inspiration and difficulty, of overcoming leadership and personal obstacles. But also: this is the first time in my career that I have felt free and welcome to share these more personal stories. Why didn’t we do this earlier?”

“As Boards and executive teams are looked to for their leadership in multi-stakeholder value creation and humanized growth, it becomes a matter of credibility if they are showing up with authenticity and courage”, Sander concludes. “This may well feel counter-intuitive for this generation of leaders – before the vulnerable and genuine exchange of their own humanness becomes expected and the new normal.”

For further insights and support on what we can bring to your organization in terms of leadership development and organizational strategy consulting for Humanized Growth, feel free to reach out to one of the following partners.

Additionally, we invite you to explore our recent report on Humanizing Growth, which draws on conversations with over 30+ CHROs.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard