8 Ways You Can Be a Great Board Member

In today’s post, I want to address what makes a good board member. But first, I want to share some reader feedback.

In my last post, I talked about the relationship between the CEO and Board Chair. I received feedback from a couple readers:

One reader noted that a major role for a Board Chair is to support the CEO personally and emotionally. His experience is that CEOs need someone to listen unjudgmentally and provide reassurance that they are on the right track.

Another reader observed that some Board Chairs misunderstand their role and perceive themselves as the CEO’s supervisor or manager, essentially making them the “Chief, Chief Executive Officer.” But the CEO’s true boss is the entire Board with the Board Chair as the liaison between the CEO and the full Board. Effective Board Chairs understand the difference between being the “Boss or Manager” of the CEO and being a “Leader” who partners with the CEO to provide direction and build consensus among Board members.

What Makes a Good Board Member?

After writing about being a good Board Chair and the relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO, I thought it also important to address what makes a good board member.

Here are eight points to consider:

Show up. We all like to support an organization when we are passionate about its mission. But, if you do not have time to fully participate as a board member, don’t join a board. Full participation means showing up at the board meetings, fully prepared. It means joining at least one committee and attending those meetings. Boards have quorums and if you are absent, you impact what votes can be taken. Boards also want different voices at the table when decisions are being made. You were asked to join because you brought a needed voice. If you never attend, then that voice is not heard; the board would do better to identify another person to bring that perspective. So, before signing up, first check to make sure board and committee meetings don’t conflict with something already on your calendar. Second, think carefully about the time commitment. If you cannot prepare for and attend at least 75% of meetings, tell the organization now is not a suitable time. We are all busy and I know sometimes we don’t anticipate life or work events so our availability may change. If that happens, you may need to resign or take a leave of absence.

Be prepared. Staff spend a lot of time preparing materials and sending them out in advance of board and committee meetings. And most board members read through these materials ahead of time. When some board members don’t come prepared, staff needs to verbally review the materials at the meeting, which is not respectful of those board members who actually came ready to have a discussion, much less the staff. If you do not have time to prepare, then you should not join the board.

Pay attention. Spending all the time at a board or committee meeting reading email or doing other work is disrespectful. Not sure I need to say more.

Do what you say you will do. Staff and other board members need to know that they can rely on you to do things you say you will do. If you do not have the time to complete additional work, don’t volunteer. The organization can find someone else. Precious time and resources can be lost while people wait for you to do something you are not going to do. If you say you are going to make a connection for the organization, do it. If you say you are going to review some materials, do it. If you say you will show up to an event, do it.

Do not dominate. Every group is comprised of diverse people. Some people are naturally more vivacious and comfortable speaking in groups. Others are quieter. Some people like to talk. Others are better listeners. If you are one of those outgoing people, let others speak first and learn to sit with silence. I especially notice that newer board members will often defer to those who have served longer. Often men or white people will dominate. Make sure you are not someone who speaks too often or too loudly. Let all voices be heard.

Ask good questions. Okay, this is a personal vent of mine. I have seen board members ask questions that are condescending to the staff person or others presenting. I have seen board members ask irrelevant questions. I have seen board members ask questions that seem to be formulated to make them look good, “See, I asked all these questions; now you know how smart I am.” Board members absolutely must ask questions. That is our role. We must understand underlying assumptions; confirm impact; and ensure decisions are made legally, ethically, and responsibly. I previously gave some guidance on what questions to ask. You can read about it here.

Check your attitude. Some board members have a bad attitude, and they can contaminate the culture of the board – and even the organization. These people can hold a grudge when things do not go their way. These people spread distrust and undermine authority. All board members need to remember that once a decision is approved by a vote of the board, everyone – even those who dissent – agree to support that decision. Remember that the work of the board and the organization is not about you. If you are unhappy with something, don’t gossip, instead go to the Board Chair or the CEO and talk it out.

Remember your role. The role of the board is to set the high-level vision of the organization and ensure that it fulfills its mission. Boards provide financial oversight. They substantiate that the organization and its staff act legally and ethically. They hire, monitor the performance of, and support the CEO. Board members act as Ambassadors for the organization in the community. Board members do not hire, fire, or manage staff. They do not develop programming. After the budget is set and within the parameters of the organization’s policies, they do not decide how money is spent. Remember the power dynamic at play here – it can be very hard for a staff person to say “no” to a board member. So, stay in your lane.

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