Let me start by saying, I’m not here to throw stones. I have made these mistakes myself. And I have seen and heard from other company directors that they have made these mistakes as well.
As they say, forewarned is forearmed. So consider this your warning: I’m going to teach you the common mistakes that I – and most other board members – make so that you can hopefully avoid making them in your board career.
1. Not arriving prepared at meetings
Quite often there is a large amount of pre-reading that needs to be done prior to board meetings and committee meetings. Furthermore, if an individual has sat on a particular board for a while and had to read board papers that are much the same month after month, they can become complacent and not fully prepared to engage and participate at the meeting.
Arriving at a board meeting and trying to read through all of the papers as you are sitting there waiting for the meeting to start (yes, you know who you are!) is not the best way to discharge your duties and responsibilities as a board member.
I have heard of some board chairs who ask directors to leave the meeting if they haven’t completed their pre-reading. You would certainly make sure you were on your toes for the next meeting!
Whilst I have never not read my board pack prior to attending a board meeting, there have been times when I have done so not long enough prior to the meeting to fully digest information and contemplate what the board is being told in the various reports, and to fully consider the decisions needed to be made.
My suggestion is to schedule time in your calendar many days before the meeting for reading, making notes, thinking, and seeking further information if need be. Meeting papers should be out at least one week before the meeting, so I have a goal of having at least three business days in between my reading of the board pack and the actual meeting date.
2. Talking over the top of other board members
Most commonly you will experience this behaviour when a fellow board member feels very strongly about their point of view and/or against another board member’s perspective.
I know that the desire to interject can be intoxicating, particularly when you feel passionate about a subject. We all have our “hot-buttons” that others (strangely) seem to know exactly how to press. Then we run off at the mouth and inevitably feel stupid for reacting so extremely.
The only thing that can be done here is practice the pause – learn how to insert a teeny bit of time between a stimulus and your reaction.
A great Chair can also help to keep the conversation non-confrontational and non-emotional.
3. Consistently not attending meetings
Long-term absenteeism does not enable you to contribute effectively and discharge your legal duties and responsibilities as a board member. You are also leaving a lot to chance by not having any oversight of what your fellow board members are voting on, and you’re leaving it up to your fellow directors that there is satisfactory and effective governance of the organisation.
You cannot properly act as a director if you do not attend meetings for a prolonged period of time.
Prior to joining a board, understand the time commitment required of you. If your circumstances change, or if the organisation’s circumstances change, and you can no longer commit to attending meetings, consider stepping off the board.
An exception to this rule is if you take a leave of absence before you take the time off (and that your absence is for a legitimate reason).
4. Not having an open mind
The great thing about boards is that they bring together a wide range of people from different professions, age groups, cultures, and backgrounds. This also means that a broad array of perspectives and ideas exist around the board table.
Many times I see preconceived notions, past self-experiences, “we tried that before and it didn’t work” and “I don’t agree so it’s wrong” attitudes derail great conversations, resulting in missed opportunities for the organisation and a reduction in the likelihood of those directors bringing ideas and perspectives to the board in the future.
Every time you show up for a meeting bring along an open mind to hearing different perspectives and ideas. If you’re someone who needs to build open-mindedness, this Forbes article gives you five simple steps to follow.
5. Getting into the weeds / operational side of the business
This is the most common bugbear of board members, particularly for smaller organisations and not-for-profits. Consider this: these types of boards are most likely made up of people who are daytime professionals doing the grind work of an organisation. Their perspective is somewhat limited to this level of an organisation. It’s what they know, so it’s where they are comfortable. As such, it’s where they will likely want to spend most time.
However, this level is not where a board should be spending much of its time; that’s for the CEO (or equivalent) and for the senior managers to worry about.
Although the coal-face perspective can help inform decisions at a board level, how a task should be done should not be the focus of board conversations. Keep the discussion ‘high-level’ and related to the organisation’s strategy.
How can you tell if your conversations are getting down into the weeds? If you answer yes to these questions, it’s a good sign that your board is too concerned with the operational issues of the organisation:
• Do you ever feel bogged down in the nitty-gritty of every tiny detail at board meetings?
• Does the conversation feel like its going around and around in circles?
• Do you ever hear your CEO use the words “micro-managing” and “over controlling”?
To bring your board’s focus back to the stuff that matters, check out this post here. It lists seven questions that you and your board can use to make sure you’re working at the right level.
Although I have seen other board members make these same mistakes, most do not make them intentionally. Thankfully they are simple slip-ups with simple solutions. Being self-aware will help you recognise when you’re about to make one of these mistakes (or if you have done so already) and work towards positively changing your behaviours.
What other boardroom mistakes have you seen, and how did you overcome them?