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 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.
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 the chapter I represented vocalized the ‘elephant in the room’ by writing that letter – the organization had been hemorrhaging membership for many years – but the execution of doing so was deeply flawed and I paid a heavy price as a new board member.
Complicating matters, I was not a savvy director. I was a newbie director. And this was far from being a courageous organization with the capacity to take appropriate action. 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 was that obstacle 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 never happens again. But there are no guarantees. As you know, serving on a board – any board – has its own culture, norms and ways of doing business. By culture, I refer to Daniel Coyle’s definition as, “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 this work is to be regarded someday as a savvy director - a director who is board ready to collaborate, contribute and influence decisions. Like you, I want to be a director who is sought after by board chairs for my ability to add value to the work of the board.
As I write this post, I am reflecting on another matter. That would be yesterday’s phone discussion with another board chair who shared the news that the owner (government) intends to dictate to our board who the next Executive Director of our organization should be. While undoubtedly a quality person, the move is entirely political as this candidate is a loyalist to the party in power and, in the view of many, lacking the fundamental skills for the position. In addition, we have a board with legal responsibility for those key hiring decisions as well as clarity on the way forward.
My first reaction on the call was predictably one of disbelief that the notion of arm’s length could be so flagrantly set aside. But then I asked myself, “What would the savvy director do?” How could I best support my board chair on this very significant interference on the part of government? Getting the CEO decision right is the most important responsibility of any governance board. In our view, the coming directive from government was a questionable move and not in the best interests of the organization and those we serve.
As Albert Einstein once noted, “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.”
I’ll keep you posted in the weeks ahead on how things evolve. This is an active file. I have some ideas that are certainly more rational and level-headed than my first gut reaction to the news. It will take some serious ‘savvy’ for my chair to navigate this one. She’s up to the task.
In the weeks ahead, I will 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. I’m also looking to get better at collaboration during the board meeting itself.
This won’t be a blog for everybody. But it will be a place for those directors interested in upping their game at the board table no matter the size of your board or type of organization.
• If things started off a little rocky in your board career, it gets much better if you choose to ‘run the miles’ and do the prep. We always have an opportunity to get better at the job of being a board director.
• Work to find a mentor to support your personal development efforts for board work.
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Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub in development with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for board meetings.