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Does a Corporate Board Need a Curmudgeon?

In an era of increasing responsibility for board of directors, does every corporate board need a curmudgeon?

Maybe, says Jim Byrne, executive director of the Beard Institute at Duquesne University’s Palumbo-Donahue School of Business.

Byrne, a longtime corporate board member himself, will moderate the discussion Why Seek a Curmudgeon on Your Board?, sponsored by the Three Rivers Chapter of the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) on Wednesday, June 15.

A curmudgeon can come in every age and gender, according to Byrne, and is recognized as the person who raises questions and plays devil’s advocate.

In practical terms, this person can either foster further discussion and meaningful thought or can belabor every point and delay every decision. How necessary are they?

Along with regulatory issues such as Sarbanes-Oxley  and Dodd-Frank, seismic changes in technology-swift trading, stock ownership and diversity throw corporate boards into new areas of legal responsibilities and implicit accountability, said Dr. Urmi Ashar, president of the local National Association of Corporate Directors chapter.

“You need a diverse board offering different perspectives, but at the end of the day, business needs coherence to move forward,” she said.

“It’s a question of balance,” Byrne explained. “You need synergy, but after synergy, you need critical thinking to achieve balance.”

A “bad” curmudgeon can gum up the process. “If they are skeptics in every aspect, they are road blockers, stopping progress,” Byrne said. “Everything is negative.”

But a “good” curmudgeon is “skeptical but open,” showing balanced discernment and a capacity to keep the ego in check and see it’s about the big picture.

“Leadership is about tomorrow, not about today,” Byrne said. “The board needs to overcome the short-term mentality and focus on creating long-term value.”

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.