It’s a privilege to serve on a board. Serving on a board gives you the opportunity to really make a difference as the decisions you make can have such an effect on not just the organization but on individuals, families – even entire communities. You are a key contributor for the overall direction and strategy, which, in turn, determines the success of the organization, building continuity and creating value for the shareholders.
“A great board is the result of having great board members,” wrote Stolle, who then outlined what he sees as being the main attributes. I concur, and I would like to add to that conversation with my own perspective of what, exactly, makes a great board member:
- Intention – First and foremost, being a great board member starts with the ‘intention’ of being one– having the intention of caring, not just joining a board. Too many board members are, unfortunately, not necessarily intentional and purposeful in their desire to become a member. The ‘reason for joining’ needs to be authentic, grounded with a clear desire to care for the cause — the entity that a board member is to serve. Being clear about ‘why’ you want to join a board is utterly important and helps to lay down your foundation as a director. In joining a board, your duty, along with the duty of the other directors, is to create value for the shareholders.
- Expectations – Next, you need to have an understanding of the board role that is expected of you. Too many board members do not understand their role and aren’t clear of the expectations of their directorship. Often, the Chair and the CEO do not communicate as effectively as they could what their expectations are concerning the role. Don’t assume anything about your time commitment and how you are being expected to contribute. Is there an expectation that you will be attending all meetings in person, that you will be on a committee and participating on conference calls between the scheduled meetings? Is your network important at this stage of growth of the organization for recruiting new talent and forging partnerships? Is your industry experience relevant, and how will you be a key player during deliberation? Will there be an onboarding program to integrate you into the board, and how are you expected to ramp-up on the business strategy of the organization? Be clear on the expectations.
- Execution – You will need to honor the commitments associated with being a board member. This means:
(a) Come Prepared: Showing up for a board meeting without reading the agenda and the documents that form part of that agenda is unacceptable. This might sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many board members are guilty of not being prepared. At the same time, the CEO has the responsibility of ensuring that the materials have been properly prepared and distributed ahead of time to fully leverage the director’s time.
(b) Respect the Calendar: Show up on time and attend all board meetings.
- Participation – Listen, intervene and speak when it’s appropriate. Don’t be controversial for the sake of making a point that is not timely and relevant. Don’t criticize unless you have a solution to offer and alternatives.
- Manners – It’s important to be tactful, even when you’re trying to be direct. Refrain from intimidation tactics: bullying and bashing do not belong in any organization, let alone a board room. Behave, especially during presentations from your executive team. Keep your phone turned off. By minding your manners and being respectful, you will gain respect.
- Leverage your Skills – Your skills are unique, so look for ways the board can leverage your differentiated skills. By leveraging your skills and participating, you’ll help strengthen the composition of the board as well as the organization’s path to success, to create value for its shareholders.
- Don’t be Shy – Given the strategic nature of the role, you need to have the courage to speak the truth. A great board member can’t be afraid to invite the other members to stand up for what is really at stake and be the one who will bring clear discernment. A great board member has to be prepared to do the most daunting of tasks, which may include changing the leadership of the organization, the CEO, when it is time– not when it is well overdue.
- Avoid Entitlement – Be cognizant of your compensation. Don’t abuse the privilege. The consequences are far too serious for yourself, for the culture of the organization and the reputation of the leadership team. If you want me to be more specific, I’m referring to writing off expenses that you should be paying for yourself. Be mindful that someone in the Controller’s group is processing your expenses, and you can tarnish the reputation of the board with the expenses you submit.
- Show Maturity – You are joining a board that operates at the very top of the organization (private, public or non-profit), whose actions and communication affects communities at large. Keep in confidence what is shared in the board room, and don’t be the source of a leak.
- Be on your Best Behavior – With a board opportunity comes greater visibility. Be mindful of your actions in the board room and outside of the board room and how your own behavioural clutter can’t be on display.
- Trust and Integrity – Do what you say you will do. Commit to what you can deliver. Be your impeccable word and strive to be your absolute best, taking pride in being a trusted board member.
- Values – A great board member has values, is clear about what those values are and is certain their commitment is in alignment with their values.
A great board member is a contributor, and as Stolle noted, great directors will form a great board. That board will readily address sticky issues, like CEO compensation and succession planning — items that are too often set aside.
A great board member should care about being a role model and inspiring through his/her role as an independent director, executive chair, vice-chair, chair, lead director, committee chair– whatever his/her role is– and should have the maturity to know when to exit a board with grace.
Finally, take care to not be the disruptive member, deliberately stalling the progress that should be made by the board. While being an independent director, every director has the duty to be a team player.
I invite you to aim to be a great board member and to commit to what you really can commit to. Being on too many boards won’t make you a great board member for all of them. I conduct leadership board effectiveness and in confidence, many board members will point out to me that some of their colleagues appear to be spread too thin and are not being the director that they expect them to be. You can’t afford to lack the bandwidth of fully honoring your commitment. Remember: it’s okay to say “no,” to be selective for what you can do, and do it well!