You agreed to serve on the board of directors to make a difference. You wanted to be part of something bigger than yourself. Maybe you also wanted to enhance your reputation–to be visible on a national stage. You pay for your own travel to meetings and give up both personal and work time, sometimes cutting into the schedule for your regular, income-generating job.
So make it count. Be one of the good guys, just like you planned. Take stock of yourself and your board behavior early and often. While the instinct is to look for answers, the truth is that questions teach us the most.
10 Questions to ask yourself not just once, but many times during your term as board member:
When you ask questions, does someone usually say “That’s in your board book?” Most boards get materials in advance of every meeting. If you’re not reading it, you are probably asking questions that have already been answered, wasting time or worse, making decisions without all the available information someone worked hard to find, organize and get to you.
Do you know what your job as director really is? Did you insist on seeing what was expected of you before you agreed to serve? Do you have a board job description now? Could you do any other job without a job description? No? How can you be a good board member if you don’t know the job requirements?
How often do you evaluate how you are doing? And the rest of the board—do they have a simple and effective way to evaluate the whole board? Self-assessments are critical to doing well in any endeavor and board service is no different. One board I worked with was absolutely diligent about evaluating their CEO and that’s a good thing. When it came time to evaluate themselves, they avoided it like a deadly virus. Remember the old adage, don’t ask others to do something you wouldn’t do? Yeah, leadership starts at the top, and that’s you.
Are you reluctant to seek outside feedback, especially from staff? Even if you did a self-assessment, did you miss anything? Are you blinded by your own ego? Ask others how you are doing, but don’t overlook staff. Many times, staff know better than anyone who is or isn’t doing the work assigned to board members, who is in it for the right reasons, or who is constantly wasting time and demoralizing staff. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of getting honest feedback, you might need a check up from the head up.
Are you the one people come straight to you with all their complaints? Somehow, you’ve incentivized people to turn you into the complaint department, and I know how fun that can be if you like drama. But that’s not your job. You and only you can do the work of the board which is to focus on the future, set goals for the organization and monitor the results. Let the CEO and staff take care of the complaints.
Are you doing something that you wouldn’t want published in the organization’s website or Twitter feed? Just like any other professional endeavor, your behavior should be above reproach or you risk not only your own reputation, but that of your organization. Even if it’s debatable if it’s unethical or not, don’t do it if you’d be embarrassed by a public airing. Besides, you can be sure staff and the officers know what you are doing and saying anyway.
Are you doing most of your talking outside the meeting? Board members are as wary of conflict as anyone else, and sometimes that keeps them from speaking up. Or they are unwilling to accept a majority vote, so upon leaving the room, they look for anyone who might agree with them, then kvetch. It’s much better to show up prepared, make yourself heard succinctly and cogently in the board room and then accept the will of the majority and move on.
Do you tend to talk all of the time, or not at all? Boards work best when they get the insight and perspective of everyone in the room. You irritate all when you belabor a point once it’s been made. Doing the opposite and sitting quiet like a stone statue is no good either and deprives the organization of your unique wisdom.
Do you expect to know everything and decide everything? Yes, it’s important that staff keeps the board well informed and you will make critical decisions. But it isn’t your job as a board member to get to make all the decisions. Your real job is to determine the results you want to see and to monitor achievement. Presumably you hired a smart, capable CEO, so be a smart boss to that CEO and delegate all the strategy and operational work. Then stay out of it, and hold him or her accountable for the results.
Is it possible you don’t know who your owners are? This one is a biggie and one many nonprofit and association board members fall prey to. If you don’t know who “owns” your organization, how do you know to whom you are accountable or what results you should focus on achieving? Without this critical piece of the puzzle, you aren’t really a board member. You are just a person with an opinion.
Is it Me? Is It You?
To be fair, if you are a horrible board member it might not be you. It might just be that you walked onto a horrible board and felt powerless to change it. My name is Vicki Hawarden and I am the lead writer for this cohort article. Decades of work with boards have shown me it can be extremely hard to change a board’s culture, but it matters so much that you try, as explained in the blog post, Boards Have the Ultimate Power to Win, Change the Game or Corrupt. Georgia and I joined forces last year and have been having a rip-roaring good time combining our decades of success with boards to sync up about how best to help boards that want to change the world. Both of us value thought leaders who are incredibly insightful and good at asking compelling questions.
Are You Ready for a Reboot?
If any of this resonates with you, tell us your story. Vicki and Georgia are now turning their 30 years of experience and reputations as the guys with the white hats, guiding boards up the high road to a totally new and bold approach. Because we know how to put a board together and make it run like the winning system crossing the finish line at any NASCAR track, we know how to take it apart and make it run even better. We want to help organizations–to improve performance and results–with a few raging visionaries, full of passion and driven by a cause, a focus, a greater good. They are the ones who want sustainability and who include Generations X, Y (Millennials) and Z (never knew a world without cell phones) in their organizations and boards.
When you are ready to take the first step, talk to us. Start here: firstname.lastname@example.org or Georgia @Communicators.com. We like helping leaders with what matters most to them and the world as one vision. You can help people by forwarding this blog post to other board members.