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The (other) Rule of Six – and the mistake we make in using it

Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced the ‘Rule of Six,’ limiting gatherings to six people, in order to slow the spread of Covid-19.

This brought to mind the older ‘Six Block Rule’ that directors have used to guide them on their capacity to accept new roles. The ‘Rule’ proposes that, in general, a competent director can manage up to six full board positions (blocks) at any time, with a chair role counting as two blocks, and a committee chair as one-and-a-half.

It suggests, for example, that we can handle two chairing roles and a couple of other positions. I know many people with several more than this. I can also remember one occasion when I was chairing three boards, as well as a bank’s Finance and Audit Committee, and I was newly on the board of two other companies: total 9.5 blocks. 

A challenging and busy period – mercifully quite short.
I also know some directors with several more than this, who seem able to juggle their commitments successfully. On the other hand, you’ll find some – perhaps political ‘favourites of the month’ – who have more appointments than fingers and thumbs, and a few toes, and I seriously wonder whether they do justice to all of their roles.

Some countries have a cap on the number of public company board positions a director may hold, usually five or six. I think this is totally reasonable, but it’s also worth acknowledging that a listed public company is likely to be far more demanding on your time than a medium sized private company or NGO.

I’d argue that the Six Block Rule is actually the wrong way to look at capacity: anyone with some experience knows that different boards require differing amounts of time and effort. I rather prefer the ‘Three to One’ approach: that the time you need to budget is roughly three times the length of your average board meeting... and ‘Three-Squared for the Board Chair’.

It works like this. Suppose you hold a board meeting each month that lasts four hours: budget twelve hours a month: 

  • Four hours in the meeting; 
  • At least four hours to prepare fully – not just reading the board pack, but staying informed about your broader environment and the issues you’ll be dealing with; and 
  • The remaining four hours for those other things you do as a director – committee meetings, strategy sessions, shareholder meetings, discussions with the CEO, and so on. 

If you’re the board chair, multiply this time by three again (you might want to read my earlier post, ‘The Five Roles of the Chair’):

  • First, you have to do everything your other directors do – but probably more so; 
  • You need to build, lead and develop your board; 
  • You’ll be dealing with your external stakeholders; and 
  • You’re likely to be managing the board’s relationship with your chief executive.

... You also hope you won’t have to do all these at the same time. 

Rules of thumb are quite helpful most of the time, but averages are dangerous things. Think back a few months to the early days of pandemic Lockdown. Most directors I know were attending remote board meetings every week, sometimes almost daily; and many chairs were practically full time in supporting their CEOs, and liaising with their colleagues and other stakeholders. 

Here’s the lesson from that time, and the flaw in any rule like this – ‘Rule of Six’ or ‘Three to One’. When you’re deciding whether you can accept a new position, ask yourself not only whether you can cope if one of your boards has a crisis... what if they all have a crisis at the same time? Or, more accurately this year, what if the same crisis hits them all, at the same time?

Precisely when your board needs you most, will you be missing in action because you’re overloaded? 

That’s what you need to think about, when you’re offered yet another role to add to your portfolio. Good luck!

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