Directors with devices: driven to distraction?

Tablets, cellphones and laptops make us all more efficient—until those same tools, coupled with social media, become a distraction and an intrusion. Why it pays to be smart with smart tech
By Richard Leblanc

You can be sure PwC partner Brian Cullinan learned his lesson after his distracted-tweeting gaff at the Academy Awards in February. But we should study it as a teachable moment for directors, too.

Cullinan, you’ll recall, was in charge of tabulating Oscar votes and giving celebrity presenters the envelopes holding the winners’ names backstage. Evidently, he was also tweeting when he handed the wrong envelope to Best Picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The result was reputational damage for PwC when the two announced the wrong film had won. (The Academy has since opted to keep PwC in the role, absent Cullinan and colleague Martha Ruiz.)

What this points up is that social media use can become an addiction. And when it does, it can compromise not only reputation, but decision-making as well.

The most common complaint I have during my reviews of boards of directors’ performance is distracted directors. I see distracted directors in boardrooms and distracted students in classrooms all the time.

I was auditing a graduate university class recently, and most of the students were on their laptops, typing away, apparently oblivious to the lecture occurring in front of them. Their eyes were not on the professor or their colleagues. I stopped the class and asked what the point was that the professor had just made. No one could answer.

The same problem occurs in boardrooms, with directors looking at iPads, cellphones and laptops during the board meeting instead of each other. The devices create a physical and psychological barrier.

The answer for boardrooms and classrooms is not to ban technology, but rather to use technology to enhance individual and meeting performance, not diminish it.

If you are prepared for class or for a board meeting, there is no need for any technology, or very many notes for that matter. The use of technology, including PowerPoint slides, can be a safety blanket or used to manipulate your audience. If a person reads PowerPoint slides, chances are they are unprepared, and further, that you have a weak board chair or weak professor. A great board? Management discussion or presentation can occur without any technology whatsoever. Some of the best discussions that I have moderated and witnessed in boardrooms and classrooms do not include any technology.

What is the answer for boards of directors and classrooms, and the use of technology?

• Resist the use of technology simply because it is available. The litmus test for technology is performance.

• Lay down the rule if you are the board chair or professor: no technology unless it is directly related to the meeting. And lead by example.

• Make sure all discussions, agendas and information are relevant, to respect your audience’s time, and resist their temptation to be distracted.

• Insist on full preparation and focus on the discussion. The discussion is where the learning and important decisions get made.

• Have students submit two-page summaries of the readings at the start of class, to validate their preparation.

• The foregoing would be draconian for directors, but it is blindingly obvious to directors who is prepared for the meeting and who is not. Have a system to enforce preparation.

• Insist on peer assessment of directors and students.

• Make sure that you can see someone’s eyes. If you cannot see their eyes, chances are they are distracted.

• Take frequent breaks to use technology for personal purposes.

• Insist on in-person meetings to the fullest extent possible.

• Self-police any errant director or student who cannot comply with the above.

• Most of all, lead by example.

Richard Leblanc is an associate professor, governance, law & ethics, at York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies and a member of the Ontario Bar. E-mail: rleblanc@yorku.ca.

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