We all know that getting the right board members around the table is crucial. That’s probably why there are thousands of articles and blog posts that talk about recruiting new board members.
Some focus on the “attribute grid” or “board matrix,” or “skills grid.” That’s the grid that helps you identify the skills and attributes you want on your board, relative to the skills and attributes you already have on your board, and where the gaps are. Standards for Excellence™ has one for its members, as does KPMG and many others.
Then there are articles that tell you to throw the infamous grid out the window, like Blue Avocado, in their article ‘Ditch Your Board Composition Matrix’. These make the very valid point that just having a lawyer on your board doesn’t mean a darn thing, if she’s a divorce lawyer and you need someone with real estate law knowledge. Or if he’s a tax accountant, and you need someone who can oversee the nonprofit accounting process.
True confession: In the past, I have been a proponent of attribute grids, while leaning more towards the Blue Avocado model – what are we trying to accomplish? Who do we have, who do we know, who’s in our corner who can help us accomplish this? As a matter of fact, I still think that way. But there’s a glaring omission.
The thing is, skills don’t make a board, people do. And people have basic qualities that can make a board exceptional – or dysfunctional. Board members who don’t respect the Executive or each other are toxic. Board members who don’t care about the cause won’t do anything to further it. Board members who live in the past – ‘tried it once, didn’t work’ – don’t consider how the world has changed.
So no matter what other skills a board member has, she must have these:
• A passion for the cause
• Respect for others
• Thoughtful ability to consider issues, and to articulate those thoughts
• A sense of responsibility for making things happen
• The vision to think beyond today
Passion for the cause is first and foremost. Why waste a seat on the board with someone who doesn’t care enough to really work for your success?
Respect is probably next. I’ve experienced too many boards where board members belittle the executive or a staff member in front of the board or their peers. And I’ve experienced other boards where discussions devolve into a shouting match between two members who don’t even try to listen to each other. Time is too short and your cause is too worthy, to waste a seat on a disrespectful board member, no matter how much money they might give.
Thoughtfulness – the ability to really consider the issue at hand and weigh its ramifications for the organization – is a rare gem. The best board members ask questions that cause you to think through your own responses as well. If a board member can’t stop to think about why he is in favor or against an initiative, then you’re allowing his personal past experiences to automatically have a vote, regardless of where those experiences have led.
Passion, respect and thoughtfulness are great, but responsibility is where the rubber meets the road. When it comes time to act, you need board members who take responsibility for ensuring that promises are fulfilled. Whether it’s connecting the executive with the governor, reviewing the audit, or making calls to supporters, promises don’t cut it. Board members must take responsibility. As sung by Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “Don’t talk of love, show me!”
Finally, board members must be able to envision the future and think beyond today. So many decisions affect both today and tomorrow; considering only today’s issue jeopardizes your future. Faced with an excess of income (it does happen!), do you put the funds aside for tomorrow or spend it today? Do you invest in building infrastructure or in professional development so tomorrow you can serve more clients? Faced with a significant deficit, do you cut back programs or invest in development staff? Envisioning the future ramifications of today’s decisions is imperative for your future.
This is the final checklist when weighing the value of a new board member. Without these five qualities, you can have the best real estate lawyer, the best CPA, the best HR administrator, each at odds with each other, unable to make a decision and unwilling to connect you to those who can help you change the community.
So go ahead, consider what you want to accomplish, and seek people who are able to make it happen. But before putting them on the board, use this checklist. Ask yourself, do you want to work with this person?
Susan Detwiler is the founder of The Detwiler Group and works to create sustainable organizations by helping them craft strategic plans aligned with their vision, mission and values; educating their board and staff to facilitate that alignment; and connecting them to the resources they need to achieve their mission.