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Board Service Good Habits

June 3, 2024
| Leadership

Many people I know express a desire to serve on a board. They spend time working to get their CVs just right and to network with members of boards they are interested in. However, the board chairs, CEOs, and executive directors I know wish their board members would develop better habits and demonstrate them more consistently. Let me reveal the five habits that are the secret to being loved by your board’s executive team and in demand for other boards.

Habit 1 – Show Up

The first and most important action you can take is to take every board meeting seriously. Put them on your calendar and treat the schedule as sacrosanct. Arrive on time and be present for the meeting (put the phone and email away). No business can be completed without first establishing a quorum, and only voting board members can make that happen consistently. The bylaws may permit voting by email or special meetings. Take these instances seriously as evidence your executive team has an urgent need for a board-level decision. Be thoughtful during the presentation and discussion. You are most likely to serve on a non-profit board at first. Help your executive director meet a quorum at every meeting to keep the important work of your organization moving forward. You should also expect to serve on at least one committee. Consider which one you can best contribute to and let your Board Chair know early in your term. Treat your committee service in the same manner as you do your board.

A group of people, potentially a board, meet together
Photo by Anna Shvets

Habit 2 – Come Prepared

Second, review the board book or other provided materials before the meeting, and make notes on any questions. Don’t wait until right before the meeting to open and read documents. Your executive team spends considerable time planning the agenda, investigating options, and preparing to have a productive meeting that moves the organization forward. Therefore, you should treat these materials with the same respect. If an item in the consent agenda needs discussion, ask that it be moved to the main agenda before the meeting starts. Be ready to move the meeting forward on necessary housekeeping on items like approving the previous meeting minutes. Ask for updates from all committees (including the Executive) if you don’t see them on the agenda. Help the executive team by suggesting agenda items and providing information at least two weeks in advance of the next board meeting. Being well-prepared also includes refreshing your knowledge of the bylaws at least annually.

A laptop, notepad, and cup of coffee.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Habit 3 – Have Faith in your Executive Team

Third, once your board has selected the executive director and other team members, you should invest your trust in their professional ability. Boards should help set strategy and let the executive team handle operational details. It’s typical for a board to discuss strategic vision and core directions annually. Lean into this meeting with all the board habits to set the organization on a solid path for the year. Take your executive director’s proposed plans seriously. They have done considerable work to research, understand, and capture the appropriate options, giving weight to factors that may be less familiar to you. Constantly raising questions about the choices and resisting votes on key measures is a vote of no confidence and undermines the team’s ability to work. It’s also frustrating for the board and organization when you can’t make progress. If there are serious personnel issues, raise them with your Board Chair outside of the meeting so they can handle the situation appropriately.

A group of people putting their hands on top of each others'
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Habit 4 – Contribute Constructively

Lastly, contribute your ideas and energy at the right time, before, during, and after each meeting. If you raise a point, be concise. Don’t waste valuable meeting time with lengthy stories. Be ready to summarize the discussion on an agenda item into a motion for vote, and alert for your opportunities to second other’s motions. Importantly, be kind and courteous. Non-profit board members often have different perspectives. No one voice should drown everyone out. Contribute to everyone’s engagement by thoughtfully interrupting to note the group hasn’t yet heard from a particular member on the subject. You can assist new board members, especially those from marginalized groups, by asking them for their feedback when they have not been heard. Help the Chair and ED elicit consensus on agenda items or move the contentious items to committee discussion. If an item is not on the agenda, help the executive director move it to the future topic parking lot. Don’t be afraid to share a difference of opinion in a respectful way. Airing different perspectives and options is one way boards deliver value to their organization.

Habit 5 – Commit Thoughtfully

When you are considering board service, do your research to understand the organization’s purpose and the expectations for its directors. What are the demographics and skills of the present board members? What are you bringing that enhances the group effectiveness? Do you have unique domain knowledge or a critical yet unrepresented perspective? Does the organization want to make a strategic shift, or is the board satisfied with the current direction and actions? Most nonprofit boards will require some type of event participation, financial contribution, or corporate sponsorship. Can you meet these additional expectations while still balancing your own and your family’s well-being? Are you ready to perform the first four habits? Make sure you are a good fit for the group and the opportunity before you apply.

A person sitting and thinking
Photo by Na Urchin

These habits seem simple, and one might expect that seasoned business professionals wouldn’t need a reminder to follow them instinctively. However, there are too many stories of board dysfunction to take this issue lightly. Board service is a serious commitment rather than a popularity contest or a resume garnish. With the right attention, it can repay you with personal and social benefits. Give the organization you support your best, and you will reap the rewards.

I acknowledge and thank my colleagues Erin Williams-Heuter, Stacia Rasmussen, Juliet Sinisterra, and Michaele Armstrong for their thoughts on this topic and suggestions to improve the text. I’m continuously grateful for their friendship and expertise.

A picture of a board room.
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

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