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Build a successful board by avoiding these 6 roadblocks

By Bill Hoffman
December 2, 2019

Road closed sign and fence barring access to construction zone
Photo by Jacob Wray on Unsplash

We all want a successful board, right? Then why do so many of us sabotage our own efforts? It may not be intentional, or even conscious, but it happens every day. Here are the top ways I’ve seen executive directors throw up roadblocks to developing a highly successful board.

1. Populate your board with only friends of current board members

These are the easiest connections to make, right? Current board members have friends whom they could easily ask onto the board and who would probably fit right in. The problem with this approach? The board transitions to having small circles of connections and influence. The board’s collective network isn’t growing as much as if you had recruited members from different walks of life (i.e., with greater diversity). Instead, your board doesn’t have the connections in the community your organization needs, and and board members end up returning to their same contacts until they’re worn out.

2. Recruit only low or mid-level professionals to represent businesses on the board

It’s easier to recruit board members who may be earlier in their careers, have time, and don’t have a lot of other conflicting professional commitments. But are these the most influential and affluent representatives available? The most effective boards have C-level (i.e., high-ranking) representation from businesses on their board. And you can only attract those members if you set high standards and recruit consistently at that level. High-level executives will look at your board to see if their peers are serving so they know if they’ll fit in. Yes, senior executives have time pressures and other commitments and need to be engaged at a more strategic level. But the resources and connections they bring to the organization are worth the extra effort.

3. Don’t bother to orient new board members

You probably have a lot of good information about your organization on your website. If you tell new board members to look the website over and maybe give them a tour of your facility, they should catch on eventually and be good to go, right? That appears to be how some executive directors think new members should be on-boarded. The most effective boards have a structured orientation for new members that includes existing board members and is delivered early in a new board member’s term. It lays out not only information about the organization and its programs but also clear expectations for the board members and their role in the organization.

4. Don’t communicate board roles or expectations

Although many board members have a history of board service with other organizations, that doesn’t mean they have a clear understanding of what is expected of them in your organization. Organizations with successful boards clarify roles and responsibilities in writing with a Board Member Job Description. Often board members sign a commitment form that spells everything out clearly. And existing board members need to be reminded about their roles and how to perform them. Although board members are busy people, I’ve found they appreciate receiving regular training that helps them fulfill their responsibilities better.

5. Give your board a steady diet of rainbows and unicorn news

We’re all proud of our respective organizations’ accomplishments, and there’s nothing wrong with some bragging about what’s going well. Beware, however, of only sharing good news. Busy board members who want to make a difference need to know how they can do so. If your organization has weaknesses or areas where help is needed, your board members want to know so they can focus their energies there. I’ve seen many a high-power board member leave a board (or just stop showing up) when all they heard were the wins and none of the challenges. Instead, they shifted their attention to other organizations that needed their help.

6. Only communicate with the board around board meeting time

Effective board members have busy lives and a multitude of competition for their time and attention. They will (probably) read your board packet and think about the topics to be discussed at the board meeting when you send it out. But can you afford to only ask for their attention at the quarterly (or monthly) meeting? Although you don’t want to overwhelm anyone with too much information, it’s worthwhile to engage board members between meetings. One effective way I’ve seen this done is with a short board member-only briefing (everyone likes getting the “inside scoop”) sent between board meetings.

Closing thoughts

Highly successful boards don’t just happen. They take planning, concerted effort, and hard work on the part of the organization. With the right board members selected and proper training and cultivation, this hard work pays off. Executive directors who have a systematic approach to working with their boards reap the benefits—and probably are avoiding these six pitfalls.

Tags: Boards