A colleague of mine gave me a crises call a few weeks ago about a conundrum she was having. She had recently joined the board of a small not-for-profit and had begun to discover that it may not be quite what she was originally sold. My colleague was quite concerned that the board and organisation required far more of her time and energy than she was initially told.
Her concerns were compounded by the fact that her introduction and induction to the board had been quite underwhelming, with no contact from the Chair whatsoever before her first board meeting.
Not a great start. Particularly for someone who had not had any previous board exposure and therefore didn’t know that this is quite unusual and should have raised alarm bells long before her attendance at the first meeting.
Not one to run away when things get a little uncomfortable or unusual, my colleague called me for help on what she should do at this point (hours before her first board meeting).
I suggested she do the following:
1. Talk to the Chair.
After you give them the ‘benefit of the doubt’ for not reaching out to you prior to your first board meeting, talk to the Chair about your concerns – whatever they are. The Chair should be able to provide you further information to help reduce your concerns or, at the very least, show you that they are aware and share their plan to remediate these issues.
The Chair should always be your first port of call when you have any concerns about the board and/or organisation.
2. Attend the meeting to get a real feel of what the board is like.
My colleague had come to this board through slightly unusual circumstances and had not previously been exposed to the industry or the people involved. She had not yet been formally appointed to the board and was attending her first meeting in more of an ‘observer’ capacity.
This gave her a chance to see first-hand what board meetings were truly like. I suggested she attend and get a real-life understanding so that she has more information to make a better informed decision about whether to become a board member (or not).
3. Try and gauge how much influence you may have to introduce the changes that you believe they need to achieve what they are trying to achieve.
Attending that board meeting also gave her some insight into how much influence she may have when it came time to move the board in the direction it wanted to go. In this case, towards becoming a more ‘strategic’ board, rather than an operational board.
Although this change in function was supported by the board members, the actual ‘doing’ does not necessarily follow very easily (for numerous reasons). If the board members are not engaged on this change journey, it can lead to a lot of frustration and wasted time.
Getting a gauge on the willingness and proactivity towards the required changes of the existing board members will further help you make a decision on what to do next.
4. Don’t become a director if, after the first three steps are taken, you still feel uncomfortable.
People may say and do anything in order to get you on their board. Like when we’re dating, we always put the best version of ourselves forward. Usually the ‘version’ we choose to showoff is the one we think will win over the other person. For uninformed board newbies this can be a trap.
Exposing yourself to as much of the organisation’s and board’s ‘true picture’ goes a long way to getting to a point of personal comfort before you officially become a director.
This point of comfort, which is different for everyone, is necessary for you to reach before you make a full commitment and put everything on the line.
If you don’t reach you’re required comfort level, don’t become a director.
5. Next time, do more extensive due diligence.
The possibility of joining a board is an exciting one. You’re probably focusing on the exciting work ahead and being able to tell people you’re a on a board. All lovely things; however, you need to turn your mind to what and where things could go wrong and problems exist.
If you’re new to boards, you’re probably not sure what these are. So it’s even more important for you to look under as many stones as possible and get a real understanding of the overall health of the organisation and board before you let yourself get really excited.
We have a few resources available to help you go through the ‘due diligence’ process before you join the board.
Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions and seek as much information as necessary to give you the level of understanding and comfort that you need. It is not worth your time, energy, personal assets, reputation, and anything else that you could potentially lose if things go very wrong.
My colleague is currently in the process of working through these suggestions. I’m certain she will find a solution to her circumstance that she is comfortable with, knowing that she has learnt some valuable lessons along the way.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, where you think you may be on the wrong board, the next best thing you can do for yourself is something that will bring you closer to making a decision to stay or go. The first three suggestions above are likely the best steps for you to take. If you’re not yet on the board, all five suggestions may work for you.
What suggestions would you have given to my colleague? Share in the comments below.
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