Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
A decade of serving on boards across two states, six industries, and with a wide range of revenue levels and sizes, I’ve come to learn a few things.
Oh boy; *a lot* of things. More than enough to fill lists of ‘five things’ ten times over!
I’ve given it deep consideration and have narrowed it down to the five essential things that I believe every board member needs to know. Hopefully before you join a board, but these are just as relevant if you’re already on a board and are starting to get some progress with your board career.
1. Your governance responsibilities.
Understanding your duties, obligations, and requirements as a company director is paramount. “I didn’t know” is not an excuse available for directors if things go wrong.
Ideally, you would have an initial idea of your governance responsibilities before you pursue a board career – so you really know what you’re getting yourself into. A simple google search can help you here (or we have a course that can help you expedite growing your critical boardroom knowledge).
Consider your legal requirements along with your ethical obligations. As you progress on your board career, you will start to develop your own personal ‘governance philosophy’. Kind of like your own standard of ‘doing’ governance. For me, I tend to sit on the conservative, do it right and properly, side of the spectrum. Some people think I may be a little over-the-top with my approach to governance, I think of it as a high standard that doesn’t have to be reserved only for the ‘big end of town’.
The first step is knowing. Here are a couple of articles to help get you started:
2. You are part of a team.
What makes a great team? Cooperation. Equal contribution. A strong, clear and unified purpose. Great communication. A complementary balance of skills, experience, and abilities. Trust.
ALL of these attributes create a highly effective team in the boardroom, as much as they do in the workplace and on a sports field.
You, as a board member, have the responsibility to positively contribute towards a great team environment in the boardroom.
Where do most boards fall down? Equal contribution. Every board member must contribute to the effective and efficient work of the board. It’s about more than just showing up to the board meeting.
3. The people stuff is the hard stuff.
Initially, new and aspiring board members get very concerned about the governance aspect of being on a board. Yes, governance is very important; however, the aspects of being on a board that cause the most problems in the boardroom have to do with the people around the board table.
Interpersonal relationships are the most challenging parts of any role – think about your workplace. What causes the most challenges? Chances are it has something to do with how people are working and/or communicating with each other. Same goes for the boardroom.
This is the part of being on a board that I have had to work the hardest at. My communication style is very direct. I like to think of it as ‘clear communication’; some may call it ‘blunt’. What I have learned is that many other people don’t like the confrontational nature of this style of communication. So I have had to temper my natural tendencies, adapt to others’ communication styles, and find another way of getting to the same end point without p***ing anyone off.
Does it solve all of the people challenges that come with being on a board? No. But it certainly helps to contribute towards a cohesive team environment (see #2 above) and demonstrate the type of behaviours expected of someone on a board (see #4 below).
It also helps to have a strong Chair to lead the group and keep ‘the people stuff’ in check. This is why selecting a Chair is such an important task for board members.
I encourage you to read, watch, or listen to anything you can find about working with a wide variety of individuals, how to have effective and robust conversations, and how you can adapt to different personality types to effectively and efficiently reach positive outcomes for the organisation.
4. You are being watched. By everyone.
Being in a leadership position means that people are watching your every move. The staff, customers, and other stakeholders of the organisation watch the leaders for feedback on what behaviours are acceptable, whether they actually want to ‘follow’ you, and whether they should respect you and your decisions.
This is why setting – and reinforcing – the right culture in the boardroom is so important. You are setting and being the example for everyone else to follow.
If you think you are not being seen, think again. Every move you make, every step you take, they’ll be watching you.
5. It’s up to you to learn the business of your business.
I made a total rookie mistake on one of my past boards: I never took the time to really get to know the business. Not just the actual business, but the industry it was in, the different levers that could be pulled to lead to success (or not), the key players and stakeholders, the key issues facing the business, and to really understand the key staff members within the organisation.
Even though my induction was average – at best – I had the personal responsibility to get myself to a point where I was well-informed to make sound decisions in the boardroom.
I don’t advocate getting to a point of full indoctrination whereby you have no true independent perspective; however, a comprehensive level of understanding would have helped me to be a more valuable board member. I also would have felt that I was contributing meaningfully instead of spending much of my time wondering (worrying!) why I was even on the board in the first place!
Find a way to understand the business of your business. There are some ideas in this article about Self-Onboarding so you don’t make the same mistake I did.
These are the top things that I have learned over my board career so far; some experiences that I hope can save you from some of the not-so-glamorous aspects about being a board member.
I hope these help you with your board career, whichever stage you’re at.
Let me know, what stood out to you? Did anything in this list surprise you? Please share your feedback in the comments below.