Have you ever served on a board with a director you’d consider ideal? Someone you can’t wait to have in the boardroom, to engage in conversation that’s forward thinking, inspiring, and infused with values and goals aligned with the organization you both serve?
If you haven’t experienced that yet, I sincerely hope you do at some point, because there’s nothing like it. No matter your colleague’s background, they come prepared - ready to participate in the board discussion. Maybe not for every topic on the agenda, but certainly for those where they have an insightful question or comment to share. And from experience, you know it’s going to be something that elevates the discussion to the next level.
And yet, just like you, these savvy directors are super busy people. You might wonder how on earth they find the time to get their PREP done. How can they be so ready to breeze into the room with the confidence to influence their fellow board members in a positive way?
I sense it’s because they’re motivated from within to be the best director they can be. They prepare within themselves to have a positive impact. And they know their ‘why’.
For them, it’s not about compensation or some other external reward. We all know that volunteer directors are paid with words of gratitude and pats on the back. And on corporate boards, the directors generally all receive the same fee, so it isn’t money that prompts some directors to do more due diligence than others.
I’ve been intrigued for some time as to why the directors I look up to just seem to have an extra gear when it comes to board work. Given their higher level of intention, preparedness, readiness, and performance, what can I learn about their motivation to be a really effective director on an effective board?
Think of a time when you took on a project, agreed to an extra task at work, or spent a lot of money and time on a course just for the credentials to put after your name. How long did your feeling of reward or satisfaction last?
Now contrast that with the real reason you agreed to serve on the board of an organization that you care deeply about. What is the mission of that organization? Do you have a human connection to its purpose? Does that purpose motivate you to show up having read and reflected on the board package before the meeting? Can you find the time to prepare even when it seems impossible?
If you make a habit of reading The Savvy Director, you’re somehow finding the time to devote to this blog and probably other board resources as well. From that, I’m going to assume you have the intrinsic motivation to keep enhancing your director skills one meeting at a time.
You may not even think of it that way. But it helps if you do.
Teachers and professors are frustrated when they hear that question at the end of a semester. Many students are focused on external reward – their course grade – instead of embracing what they’ve learned. They prioritize knowing what to cram for over what would benefit their understanding and future.
I’ve certainly been guilty of that way of thinking prior to exam season. I was more focused on the external reward of higher marks – or simply getting through my finance courses - instead of internalizing what I could use going forward. Ironically, I see those benefits now when reviewing the financial statements ahead of a board meeting. It even caused me to brush up on my skills by taking a boardroom financials course so I could make a contribution and avoid embarrassing myself.
I’d like to circle back to this notion of intrinsic vs. extrinsic reward and how it applies to a board director’s commitment to being the best director they can be, versus doing the minimum to simply scan through the board package so they can say they’ve read it.
What motivates the high-performing director to do more? One reason is they know their ‘why’.
Knowing what lights you up before you agree to join a board is a good way to predict whether you’ll enjoy the overall experience and be able to push forward when the going gets tough.
Some of us have joined industry association boards mostly because our boss thought it would be a good idea – and they no longer wanted to do it themselves. In a case like that, the external reward includes keeping the boss happy and maybe benefitting from new network contacts. Fair enough.
On the other hand, perhaps you’ve been asked to join a board in the human services or health care sector because the board needs your particular skills. But if you’re more engaged because a family member or friend benefits from the organization’s services, your intrinsic motivation to ensure the non-profit’s sustainability will help keep you going when life gets busy. You’ll do the work because it’s internally rewarding.
Research shows that intrinsic motivation is more powerful and sustainable than extrinsic. It’s not just about board work – there are lots of examples from all aspects of life. Here are a few courtesy of Adrienne Santos-Longhurst writing for healthline.com:
There are a number of factors that promote intrinsic motivation, and, in my view, they can all be applied to board work.
Much has been written on how the board chair can organize meetings, agendas, topics, speakers, and board retreats to motivate and engage directors in the work of the board. I agree that external factors like these help to create the conditions for success for the board as a whole.
But as an individual director, I believe you can make a greater contribution to that success if you have clarity on the intrinsic reasons that motivate you to be the best director you can be. When you internalize this, you’ll be better prepared, ask better questions, and make a greater impact.
Directors like that are the ones I want to serve with.
Extrinsic drive means we seek rewards and avoid punishments – it seems reasonable enough to assume that. But can we also assume we have an intrinsic desire to create, to learn, and to make the world a better place?
In his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink, drawing on four decades of scientific research, wrote about our intrinsic drive. According to his research, people are intrinsically motivated when they can act independently, feel that their efforts matter, and gain satisfaction from becoming more skilled.
Pink articulated three elements that, in his view, can truly release people’s innate drive to improve productivity, effectiveness, and fulfillment.
Pink’s description of these three elements of intrinsic drive reminds me of the board director I choose to look up to and strive to be – one with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Isn’t that what serving on a good board with savvy directors is all about?
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com - an online membership with practical tools for board directors who choose a growth mindset.
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