Moving Mountains: Being a Member of a Board of Directors

I was a member of a board of directors for an organization that serviced over 100,000 members and 120 leaders. It was a chance to impact the virtualization community and shape the next several years of operations for this organization. Being asked to join the board was a thrill, and I was eager to take on this responsibility and make a difference.

You may think you are brought on because change was needed.. That may be true, but I feel it’s important to slow down and absorb as much as possible.

The year and a half that I spent on the board was an experience that taught me valuable lessons that I use today:

Think Strategic vs Tactical

One of the greatest challenges is to shift your mindset from tactical to strategic. Your initial reaction is to share your experience from a field perspective, which is good, but when making decisions for a larger group of people you have to find themes and ideas that will impact the most people possible.

Boards deal with people and numbers that are much larger than you might be used to, and it’s significant to get an understanding right away. This gives you a different lens to view the field from.

You need to think long-term, and there is a lot more planning and research required than thinking in the immediate terms using a tactical mindset.

Get to know the people you represent

One thing that I did was get out of the boardroom and meet the people I was impacting. I wanted to hear from a local level how decisions we made helped or hurt their operations. I meet many in person, at conferences, and at Q&A events. Folks need to know you are working for them and that they can share candid feedback. That feedback loop is part of a continuous improvement cycle.

Ask Questions, then ask some more

There is a perception that the folks in the boardroom are the smartest people around. They should understand everything that is presented to them right away. Have you ever been in a meeting with everyone nodding their heads and writing things down, but you don’t understand what is being presented and are too shy to ask a question to get a point clarified? Chances are that three other people on that board have the same questions but are afraid to ask.

I encourage everyone to ask questions when they don’t understand something. This will help the entire board get clarity on the topic. Asking questions is a sign that you are engaged in the topic but need additional information to help understand. That first question is the spark, and soon others will put their pens down and start asking follow-up or their questions.

Have the other person’s best interest in mind

Over time, the board will often self-organize into smaller groups of people who have similar interests and perspectives. If taken to an extreme, this can be a bad thing, as it will be harder to build consensus among the board. I always do my best to think win-win when trying to get other board members to agree on an idea. I put their perspective first and always “how would a win look for you?” then try to work within those parameters to get them to see my perspective.

There is always compromise here, but if you can’t come to an agreement and one side wins out, it’s OK to disagree, but be sure to commit and support the board member. The entire board should support the decision, this way you can move beyond any resentment or dislike for the idea. If you continually disagree with the board, then it’s best to step down.

Moving mountains

The board can seem distant from the rest of the organization. Like different mountain ranges, you can see from a distance but not able to climb. It’s up to the board to bring the boardroom closer to the people it serves. Let’s move some mountains.

Being part of a board is an incredible opportunity to think big, impact a large group of people and do some monumental work. It’s not a solo job, and you need to leverage the collective intelligence of the board to make a difference.