Bored with your Board?

September 4, 2015

In the 20+ years I’ve worked in alumni relations and development, I’ve worked with a number of volunteer Boards.  All had great people on them – talented and committed.  Some of these Boards were great.  Others, not so much.  If they all had great people, what made the difference? It’s simple: the way they were managed.

Over the years, I’ve had to ‘revamp’ a number of volunteer Boards (for Board, you can also substitute the words ‘Committee’ or ‘Group’ – any set of individuals who come together to try to help/support/govern the institution involved). In fact, I’ve gone through these revamps so many times that I’ve now written a ‘how to’ guide for it. It’s only 2 pages long.  No, you say, the secret to managing Boards must take a whole book (and there are more than a few books out there devoted to the subject).  Nope.

So what does it take to make a Board great?  Four simple steps…

Step 1 – Provide strategic direction. Does the Board know what the institution needs it to do? Can they tell you? If not, make it clear to them.  If it’s not clear to you, the problem isn’t the Board.  Figure it out first, and then share it with them.

Step 2 – Get their buy-in. Ask the Board to help you make them effective in helping the institution. If they take more time than they give back in benefit, they aren’t effective. If they aren’t effective, they already know it – after all, they are talented people. Them telling you this may be what takes at least some of that time.  Chances are, if you are frustrated by the Board, they are too.

Step 3 – Set expectations.  Be clear about the structure and support they will get. Give them terms of office and terms of reference. If the terms of reference are longer than two pages, they are too long. Simplicity is key here.

Step 4 – Find a great Chair. Find someone who ‘gets it’ and is willing to work with you. Ask them to Chair.  Be clear about how you will support them. Be efficient in giving them that support, and work with them to rally others. Give everyone tasks to do (letting them ‘Chair’ their own area) and support them in doing it. Give them deadlines and follow through.  Don’t expect them to remember deadlines; it’s your job to support them. You want the Board to lead, not administer.

I once had a meeting with my Board Chair (the CEO of a FTSE 100 company).  We had half an hour.  As I watched that half hour tick away (he got called away to speak to his Chairman), I whittled down my long list of things to speak with him about, until I had four items, each of which required a 30-second explanation and a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  When I got into his office, he said, ‘I have five minutes, and, with apologies, you are not the most important thing on my to-do list today.’  I said, ‘That’s fine – I’ll take five minutes to ask you four questions and then I’ll get out of your office.’  I did, and, as I left five minutes later, he said with respect, ‘Holly, that’s the way to run a meeting.’

For further advice on establishing, reviewing, and recruiting Boards, contact Graham-Pelton Consulting.

– Holly Peterson, Associate

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