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The Six Key Habits of The Savvy Director™

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a really effective board director? What differentiates a ho hum director from an excellent one? Which directors add real value to the boards they serve on vs. those who just occupy a chair?

In other words, what are the most important behaviors of an effective director?

Or as we would say at DirectorPrep, “What are the Key Habits of The Savvy Director™?”

Whether delivering governance training to a board of directors, conducting an orientation session for new directors, or mentoring an aspiring director, I would frequently encounter a similar question – just worded a little differently. I’d be asked “What do I actually have to do to be a good director?”

I didn’t have a clear, concise response for them so, with the help of my DirectorPrep co-founders, I’ve been working on a framework to summarize how an effective director actually behaves.


What’s with the “Savvy” in Savvy Director?

Board directors are frequently described as savvy. From where I sit, it seems to capture in one word what a board is looking for in its directors. When I use the term, nobody looks at me in confusion. Everyone knows just what I mean.

The word itself seems to derive from the French savoir or the Spanish saber, both of which mean to know. The French word conjures up the term savoir faire which literally means knowing how to do. So, savoir faire describes “a capacity for appropriate action, especially a polished sureness in social behavior.”

The word savvy denotes someone with common sense and good judgment. Here are some of the adjectives that the word brings to mind: shrewd, knowledgeable, experienced, well-informed, perceptive, practical, and clever.


Developing the Savvy Director framework

Staying up to date in the field of board governance requires being continually on the lookout for new resources from trusted sources. So, at DirectorPrep we were delighted to come across a global research study about director behaviors conducted by Russell Reynolds Associates. First published in 2016 as 'Understanding the Behaviors that Drive Board Effectiveness', then updated in 2019 as 'Going for Gold: The 2019 Global Board Culture and Director Behaviors Survey', it captures the results of a survey of corporate directors from a dozen countries. The survey found that directors around the world were surprisingly consistent in identifying important attributes that define an effective director. Here’s their top five (consistent in both surveys with a slightly different order):

  1. Possess the courage to do the right thing for the right reasons.
  2. Be willing to constructively challenge management when appropriate.
  3. Demonstrate sound business judgment.
  4. Ask the right questions.
  5. Possess independent perspective and avoid Groupthink.

Only slightly below the top five was another of my personal obsessions, 'Come prepared to meetings.'

In considering the Russell Reynolds list, we found that, for our purposes, it would benefit from some tweaks based on our own experiences and observations. For instance, maybe it’s because I do a lot of my consulting work with not-for-profits and first-time directors, but I would definitely add another attribute: 'Know and understand the board’s role and your director responsibilities.'

Before finalizing our framework, we vetted a draft with some of the experienced directors we know. As always, their feedback was invaluable. Thank you to those who contributed.


The Savvy Director framework

These six key habits are inspired by the Russell Reynolds research and supplemented by our own experience and observations.

  • Build Governance Skills. Access the resources you need to understand the board’s stewardship role and your responsibilities as a director.
  • Prepare for Meetings. Spend time before each meeting so you are ready to add real value to board and committee discussions.
  • Ask Great Questions. Stay curious. Help the board move forward with well thought-out questions that get to the heart of issues.
  • Collaborate with Others. Treat the board and management with respect. Work towards reaching a common understanding.
  • Think Independently. See with your own eyes. Avoid Groupthink and challenge the status quo in a respectful manner.
  • Demonstrate Courage. Maintain your integrity. Don’t be afraid to do the right thing for the right reasons.

DirectorPrep’s Savvy Director™ framework depicts the work of a savvy director as a continuous improvement process incorporating the six key habits. It’s a continuous improvement cycle because a savvy director never stops learning and keeps building on their strengths.

Your takeaways:

  • A savvy director shows common sense, good judgement, and practical ability.
  • Across different countries and cultures, there is a remarkable consistency in how directors define the most important behaviors.
  • The key habits of a savvy director are depicted as a continuous improvement cycle because the savvy director never stops learning.
  • You can access Russell Reynolds research and more on their website.
  • Here’s a link to the Russell Reynolds 2016 report and 2019 report referenced above.

Thank you.


Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.

Share Your Insight:  In your view, what additional behaviors contribute to a director’s effectiveness?



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