Being a board member is an excellent experience for individuals who want to contribute back to their community or to their profession. It’s also a great way to learn how to effectively participate in and manage meetings and to learn skills that can transfer back to the workplace.
Being a board member is also an opportunity to learn to work in a team and to listen and value the opinion of others as you work toward common goals. At the same time, having a title such as board president or chairperson, secretary, treasurer or simply board director is rather flattering and it can certainly enhance one’s self-esteem. As well, people feel a strong sense of pride when they see the results of their volunteer endeavours.
Yet, some board members take their title, role and responsibility to greater heights and to a level that is not healthy for their organization. In fact, there are many board volunteers who see their community work as an opportunity to not only increase their stature and presence, but also to create their own little fiefdom. They rarely act in the best interests of the organization, but rather focus on personal gain. In many cases this self-centredness represents not only a hidden agenda but also a conflict of interest. Often as well, these individuals are known as show horses who enjoy making front page news in their community or in their professional newsletter rather than work horses who gets things done.
As a result, there are many community and professional association boards that are simply dysfunctional and cannot seem to focus on their overall goals and objectives. Sometimes the reason is that board members don’t have the right skills, are ill-prepared for board meetings and/or try to dominate the meeting rather than simply being assertive. Some seasoned board members, especially, don’t listen to new board members and instead spew out destructive criticism at every turn. The result is that nothing gets done and conflict reigns supreme.
One would think these difficult board members have a secret desire to be the administrator or executive director as they continually micromanage and interfere in day-to-day management. They often have excellent communication and debating skills but misuse this skill by arguing about $50 expenditures in a $40-million budget.
Thankfully, over the last number of years, particular attention has been paid to educating organizational boards on how to be more effective. Different models of governance have been proposed and implemented. At the same time, more and more universities and colleges are offering professional designations in board leadership. However, there are numerous board members and boards that continue to be dysfunctional and are thus failing their communities or professional organization.
As the fall moves forward and you are considering taking a leadership position as a board member of a not-for-profit group and/or an industry or professional association, consider the following qualities of an effective board member.
An effective board member:
— Champions the mission and cause of their organization. They serve the interests of the organization over their own personal interests. They never abuse their position of trust or expose themselves to potential conflicts of interest.
— Recognizes that their role is distinctly different from that of a chief executive officer or executive director. A board member’s role is policy, not operations — not to run the organization but to ensure it is well run.
— Recognizes and applies a standard parliamentary procedure for the conduct of meetings. The most common is known as Robert’s Rules of Order. This ensures that all voices are heard.
— Respects the views of others and avoids displaying argumentativeness, bullying and rudeness. An effective board members recognizes they are not soloists, but instead they are team members.
— Recognizes that a board member is a board member only when the board is in session. No one is personally authorized to speak or act on behalf of the board outside of meetings unless designated to do so.
— Attends every meeting well prepared and ready to discuss the issues; participates and applies the board code of conduct with respect to how meetings are managed and operational information is received and dealt with.
— Works collaboratively and cohesively with other board members towards common goals; respects the views of others and works towards consensus. Raises any issues related to dysfunctional members and works with the chair to get things back on track.
— Takes an active role in planning for the organization and in decision making; accepts responsibility for decisions at the board level and publicly commits to these decisions.
— Avoids rushing to solutions but rather applies a solid problem-solving model that encourages creativity and innovation. An effective board member looks at multiple alternatives and measures solutions for the best fit.
— Is committed to goal setting and action planning and gains commitment and ownership for the solutions. An effective board member distinguishes between fact and fiction and puts issues of concern on the table for discussion sooner rather than later.
— Understands the scope of policy and how to use this to direct the organization regarding what must be accomplished, what constraints need to be put in place and how progress is monitored.
— Demonstrates respect of organizational structure and reporting relationships; stays clear of personal involvement in staffing and operational issues. An effective board member raises questions at the board table rather than informally soliciting information from individual staff behind the scenes.
— Observes confidentiality with respect to issues raised at the board level and avoids prying into confidential personnel issues.
— Ensures an effective interpersonal and professional relationship with the CEO/executive director.
Being an effective board member requires diligence in adhering to good ethical and moral judgment. If you are a board member and/or are contemplating volunteer work on as a board director, then keep in mind that the reputation of the entire organization is reflected by your behaviour.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group, a Manitoba-based talent management solutions firm. She is also host of the weekly Bowes Knows radio show and is the author of the newly released bestseller, Resume Rescue and Taming the Workplace Tigers. She can be reached at [email protected]
This initially appeared in the September 11, 2010 edition of The Winnipeg Free Press