What it Takes to be a Great Board Member

Whether you’re on a board yourself, or looking to start one, keep these five steps in mind.


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In case you missed the trend, advisory boards and boards of directors are en vogue. Perhaps you have been asked to serve on a corporate board, or have been elected or recruited to serve on the board of one of the finishing industry’s trade associations. Maybe you’re assembling a board of your own and need some help determining what types of people to include. Like many in our industry, I have had the opportunity to serve on several, from corporate boards to not-for-profits to trade associations. They all have one thing in common: Many of their members are clueless as to what it takes to be a valuable board member, and as a result, the board meetings are much less productive than they could be.
The following is a summary of the practices the best board members follow:
Step 1: Be a listener first.
Board meetings are not a contest for board members to prove how smart they are, yet it surprises me how many people use the meetings to see who can share the most knowledge. In answer to the question of how to be a great board member, my friend Jim Lindell, a national speaker, CEO coach and president of Thorsten Consulting, puts it best when he says, “Shut up, and withhold judgment.”
In my experience, the most productive board meetings are those where management or the organization’s leadership team does at least 80 percent of the talking, educating the board members on what happened since the last meeting, and delivering reports on financial results and on performance to the organization’s goals. If management does 80 percent of the talking, then board members do 80 percent of the listening.
Step 2: Analyze data.
Most organizations send financial data, an agenda and other information in advance of the meeting. The best board members take time to familiarize themselves with this material prior to the meeting so that they arrive at the meeting prepared to follow Step 3.
Step 3: Ask great questions.
The best board members avoid rushing immediately to offer opinions or advice. Instead, they ask probing questions designed to get management to think. They replace statements like, “You should be talking to a headhunter; clearly you need to find better salespeople,” with questions like “How much faster could we could reach our revenue goals if we had a more aggressive sales team?” or “If we were to recruit a few new account execs, how would we go about doing it?”
Management didn’t get to be management because they were stupid. Most will pick up on cues like those above and get the message without being put on the defensive by their board.
Step 4: Encourage management.
A decade ago, I turned in the worst financial statement of my career, in terms of monthly financial performance – a virtual financial disaster. Suffice it to say, I felt like a complete and total failure. I even wondered if corporate management was something I was really cut out for or wanted to continue doing. To the point of being physically sick, I dreaded our board of directors meeting at which the performance would be discussed. At the absolute lowest point of my professional career, I went to my meeting expecting the worst, and I pretty much got it—from one board member in particular. The verbal beat down of verbal beat downs. As inadequate and empty of confidence as I felt going into that meeting, I felt even worse coming out. I went back to my office temporarily absent any energy or passion to fix the problem.
In contrast, I have had board members tell me, even after a horrible month or quarter, that they had faith in my leadership, knew I was doing the right things, and had confidence that my team and I would find a way to come back. What a difference that made in terms of my mental well-being, focus and ability to rally the team to perform.
The best board members encourage the leaders of the organization even when—especially when—times are tough. This is not to say that leaders should be let off the hook for poor performance. Great board members are willing to speak their minds and let management know if they’re veering off track; they just know how to do it in a way that encourages rather than discourages.
Step 5: Impart wisdom.
This step is last for a reason, and that reason is that the previous four are all more important. The number-one priority of a board member should be to improve the organization, not to win the award for being the most experienced or most successful person at the table. The best board members share with management stories about their experiences and examples of improvement ideas, for the sole purpose of helping the organization learn and improve, and only when those stories or ideas are applicable to the most important issues faced by the organization.