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Building directors’ skills to manage boardroom disputes

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The Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID), in its efforts to contribute to the professional advancement of board directors and promoting practices that are beneficial to directors and their organisations, for the second time organised a Masterclass on ‘Managing Disputes and Difficult Conversations on the Board’, an IFC Corporate Governance Dispute Resolution program. 

This highly interactive program for board directors was created by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Corporate Governance Group in partnership with the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), which is Europe’s largest independent Alternative Dispute Resolution service and the leading negotiation and conflict management trainer, internationally acclaimed for its Mediator Skills Training. 

This workshop was conducted on the understanding that disagreements and disputes on boards are unavoidable, especially when the board has independent-minded, skilled, and outspoken directors, each contributing expertise and talent that is relevant for the future of the company. A board that never argues or disagrees is most likely an ineffective board that is neither fulfilling its oversight function nor carrying out its duty of care. Yet if boardroom disagreements are not dealt with properly, they can escalate quickly into public matters that can have severe, long-term consequences for the company and its stakeholders. 

Dispute resolution techniques borrowed from negotiation and mediation can help create a collegial environment – one that encourages discussion, debate, and the free flow of ideas. These techniques can help develop an orderly process for decision making and consensus formation on specific issues the board has to contend with. And this in turn improves the board’s all-around performance.

The course was delivered by two foreign experts over two full days at the Galle Face Hotel to an eager audience of high powered heads of leading companies. Lopa Rahman, Corporate Governance Officer for IFC, in her opening remarks identified initiatives on strengthening IFC’s and SLID’s ongoing partnership specially on new areas such as customised programs for specific clients on corporate governance. The numbers were limited to ensure all participants had one to one engagement and interaction with the experts in the field. Firstly, they were intrigued as to what was in store for them, and were delightfully surprised at what unfolded! 

It was a highly interactive two days, focused on building interpersonal dispute resolution skills. It helped the participants to understand board conflict and conflict styles, and covered difficult scenarios that directors often encounter.

The sessions included understanding board conflicts, conflict styles, dealing with conflict avoidance, the framework for having a difficult conversation and how to start a conversation well, finding out what is really going on, managing emotions and status issues, strategies for breaking through to an agreement, managing coalitions, methods of influencing and using the skills in a group setting of a board meeting.

This practical workshop encouraged the participants to get involved and strengthen their deliberations and decision-making, board evaluation, discussions and overall performance. Through case analysis and interactive learning exercises, participants were able to practice the leadership skills required to manage disputes and difficult conversations on the board. 

Selected participants had a unique opportunity to receive confidential one-on-one consultation with a professional experienced mediator. The closing remarks were made by SLID Chairman, Preethi Jayawardena who emphasised the need for directors to continuously update their knowledge and skills to enable them to be more effective directors, especially Independent Non-Executive Directors who must engage with the other board members and ensure that the decisions made are in the best interest of the company.

The two trainers, one from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), Susanne Schuler MA, BA (Hons) with years of experience in mediation, conflict management, negotiation techniques and diversity and inclusion and the other from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Corporate Governance Group, Alexey Volynets, a knowledge management officer leading the IFC Corporate Governance Dispute resolution practice group.

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