Some of you know this story … my first board meeting fifteen years ago was a disaster – a horrific experience really. I had been asked to represent the regional chapter of my professional association on the national board. Then, while I was flying to Toronto to attend my first meeting, my local group sent a letter to the chair of the national board demanding that the CEO be replaced, without me knowing about it.
How do you think that went over with my new board?
What kind of welcome mat do you think they rolled out for this new director? I got killed.
Not only was this my first meeting with the national board – it was my first board meeting ever! As you can imagine, there is more to the story and we can save that for another day. For now, let’s just say my chapter had vocalized the ‘elephant in the room’ by writing that letter – the organization had been hemorrhaging membership for many years – but the execution was deeply flawed, and I paid a heavy price as a new board member.
Complicating matters, by no stretch of the imagination was I a savvy director. In fact, I was a brand-new director. And this was not exactly a case of a courageous organization with the capacity to take appropriate action in the face of a challenge. I think I’ve been in recovery mode from that shellacking ever since. (Fyi – long after my time on the board, the CEO was eventually retired. But it was too late to stop the membership erosion.) The good news for me is that what was then an obstacle, in the long run proved to be a detour in the right direction.
Since that unfortunate weekend, I’ve pursued the training, knowledge, and board experience necessary to help ensure that kind of situation doesn’t happen again. But there are no guarantees. As you may know, each board – no matter what kind – has its own culture, norms and ways of doing business. By culture, I refer to Daniel Coyle’s definition of “a set of living relationships working together toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.” And it is done in collaboration with the other directors.
For the most part, your reputation as a director is entirely up to you. For me, the aspirational goal of board work is to be regarded someday as a savvy director - a director who is sought after by board chairs for my ability to add value to the work of the board. And if you share that goal, there’s your answer to the question Why the Savvy Director?
This is a place for us to engage on topics that can help us on our respective journeys toward becoming savvy board directors – directors who are always prepared for our board meetings, ready to collaborate, contribute and influence decisions.
This won’t be a blog for everybody. But it will be a place for directors interested in upping their game at the board table, no matter the size of the board or the type of organization.
In the weeks ahead, I’ll work to add value to this blog by contacting experienced board directors and governance experts to ask questions and solicit their views on how we can all evolve our savvy quotient when preparing for our next board or committee meeting.
As I write this post, I am reflecting on another matter. That would be a recent phone discussion with a board chair who shared the news that the organization’s owner (in this case, it’s a government board) intends to dictate the choice of a new executive director. This has brought up issues, not just about the individual’s suitability for the position, but also about the board’s legal responsibilities for this key hiring decision as well as clarity about the board’s role going forward.
My first reaction was one of outrage. But then I stopped to ask myself, “What would the savvy director do?” This simple question caused me to reframe my approach to “How can I best support the board chair on this significant issue?” After all, getting the leadership decision right is the most important responsibility of any governance board. The anticipated government directive was not necessarily in the best interests of the organization or its stakeholders.
I have some ideas that are certainly more rational and level-headed than my first gut reaction. It will take some serious ‘savvy’ for the chair to navigate this one. Fortunately, she’s up to the task.
The situation brought to mind this Albert Einstein observation. “All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field.”
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for board meetings.