How to be an effective board member: 5 lessons learned

This year marks my tenth year serving as a Board member (usually in conjunction with being an investor). It’s been a fun ride with a lot of lessons learned. As I reflect on my “time served,” I’d like to share some findings from my vantage point on what it means to be effective as a Board member. 

Boards are inherently focused on two issues: governance and strategy. The goal of every Board is to ensure the company is making strong and ethical decisions (and complying with various laws and policies), and that there is a clear growth strategy in place. By their very nature, Boards are a consensus-based body that gives advice to the CEO. To me, the most important thing about both a private and public Board is whether they’re effective in giving that advice. 

Here are 5 things that help me be an effective Board member – but please note that 10 years in, I still find myself constantly learning. 

1) Rise above the endless details 

The most effective Board members I see are those who can accurately describe the forest, instead of focusing on the individual trees. I find those Board members frequently explain the context for an issue, as opposed to drilling into options and specifics. 

As an example, companies will have tough quarters; drilling down on the specifics of an underlying region (which you hope the operators have already done) is generally less effective than being able to judge if the miss was caused by a larger concern (competition or product). Instead, use your time to focus on the big picture. 

2) Empathy beats pedigree when making points  

Because Boards are consensus based, there’s often a temptation to use pedigree (“I’m on 7 Boards and none of them do this” or “When I was CEO…”) to short circuit decision making. But even if you have the greatest background and experience ever, the world still needs new ideas and fresh perspectives. 

A better way to be effective is try and show a deeper understanding of the challenges this particular team is facing. It may well be that once you listen and fully understand, a different approach is merited.

3) Prepare questions in advance 

CEOs prepare decks in advance. Good CEOs treat the decks as their “asks” for input from their Board (and even if you have a CEO who’s just in reporting mode, the deck should still be the starting point for questions to answer and debate in the Boardroom). 

A best practice here is to try and prepare your questions ahead of time. First, it helps you decide in your own head what is most important. After all, not every issue merits questions or discussion. Second, it allows you to focus and prepare for the answers. This makes your feedback less random and more useful.

4) Know when to dig in and when to defer  

I’m not an expert in sales management. Of course, there will be times I want to get my sales questions and opinions in the mix, but when other folks around the room who are experts weigh in, it is really not the time for me to hard position or grandstand. 

Know when to use your voice and when to pipe down. Many Board members do not seem to understand their impact in the room when they grandstand on issues where they have limited domain expertise. Save your influence for matters when your expertise is truly needed; this will help you have more of an impact.

5) Get to know the CEO  

The opportunity to serve on a Board is really about using your experience to help the CEO navigate the thousands of decisions they have to make every year. I’m sometimes shocked that Board members take little to no time to understand the CEO and their journey. 

As with most things in life, CEOs have experiences which shape and influence decisions. Some Board members never invest the time to understand those things (and can cross red lines without realizing it). Take the time to get to know the CEO as a person and a leader; it will be worth it in so many ways.

The journey to successful Board experiences 

Being a Board member is a privilege, and it’s not an easy job by any means. There’s no clear formula for success, and quite frankly, not a lot of great training programs in place right now. Fortunately there are people – like me – who are willing and happy to help as needed. My bonus tip, of course, is to look out for them. 

We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are a key part of building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or by connecting with us on Twitter and LinkedIn.