Eight Fundamentals of Effective Board Service (Part 1)

At some point you may be invited to serve on a board of directors. This is an honor, as board members in general are considered accomplished leaders.

But, many new directors are shocked to find that the executive skills that made them successful may actually be counterproductive in the boardroom.

What are the differences?

This week and next, I’ll share eight fundamentals that will help in your new role. Four of these highlight differences between the board and executive team, and four of them are best practices.

1 – The Board is Not Another Executive Team

The board is the keeper of the corporation. The executive team is the keeper of the operation. It is critical for directors to understand that these roles are separate and distinct.

Picture a cliffside highway from one of the James Bond films. And, just for fun, imagine yourself behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB9.

The board, in this analogy, maintains the road and makes sure the guardrails are firmly in place. You, as the driver, represent the executive team and your operation is the DB9 itself.

The board’s job is to maintain a clear and guarded path for the vehicle to arrive safely at its destination. The executive team’s job is to drive the vehicle, keep it well maintained and keep it eating up the miles.

Sounds simple, right? It is – but quite often executives that step into board roles think they are still driving the car. This is when problems occur.

Here’s an extreme and sad example. A small church had a board that met every two weeks. Each meeting lasted 4 to 6 hours on average.

The board insisted on trying to drive the car. Over time, morale became so low that key staff resigned and the church shut its doors.

While they were fighting for control of the vehicle, they crashed through the guardrail and went off the cliff.

2 – The Board is Not a Traditional Team

A normal management team works together daily. A board comes together (usually) between 4 and 12 times per year.

As such, the most important concept in board service is “teaming” versus “team building.”

Traditional team building involves building group norms and trust. Teaming, on the other hand, involves gathering experts in a temporary group to solve problems they may be encountering for the first and only time.

In teaming, the focus is on quickly scoping, structuring, and sorting the collaborative work that keeps the corporate highway maintained and the guardrails firmly in place.

3 – Board Metrics are Different than Executive Metrics

Executive teams focus on organizational outputs, primarily goods and services. These are measured by a myriad of metrics with quality assurance in place to make sure customer expectations are met or exceeded.

The board’s outputs, on the other hand, are collective decisions, usually in the form of resolutions or policies. To effectively make these decisions, the board needs to focus on the quality of the inputs.

The best boards spend considerable time on these inputs, which typically involve people, agendas, briefing materials, processes and minutes.

4 – The Board Must Be Independent

A proverb attributed to someone in the 16th century says that “Lookers-on see most of the game.”

In other words, those who are not participating are able to take an overall and objective view. As a director, this is your job. You must remain independent enough to perform this function for the corporation.

The illustration I shared in #1 is precisely why this is important.

Next week – four best practices for directors.

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