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Outlook on Leadership

by Dan Wyant

Chairman & President

Dynamic directors: How to get the most from your board members

For CEOs and senior leaders, working with board members can sometimes feel stressful. Granted, a board of directors should serve as a check on a CEO. Yet a positive board relationship will add value to your organization. And when it comes to building rapport with board members, you have more influence than you may realize. During my career in the nonprofit arena, I’ve both reported to boards and served on several boards — and here are some best practices I feel strongly about:

No surprises — Prior to our foundation quarterly meetings, I call board members individually to discuss major themes that will be on the agenda. This enables me to gauge their reaction and address any questions or concerns by following up with additional information. As a result, the in-person board meeting flows much more smoothly — especially if there are controversial issues that need to be dealt with. Too often CEOs raise tough issues at the board meeting, and the typical response of their directors is, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Even though you are telling them at that moment, they want to know ahead of time. Human beings are hardwired to dislike uncertainly and ambiguity; we want time to process information, and this is especially true when it comes to more significant issues.

Make the “ask” — Board members have good intentions, but they don’t always know exactly what to do or where to help. (Here, I’m speaking from my experience of serving on a board.) Board members may be diligent about reviewing information you send them and show up at board meetings where they give their opinions and suggestions. But then they return to their busy lives — and you may be disappointed in how much value they’re really adding. Tap the unique skill sets of your board members with a specific “ask.” For example, if you’re trying to raise money, see if they can reach out to contacts within their networks. Or perhaps a director could present one of your issues to policymakers he or she has relationships with. Maybe they can help identify new talent for your team. The point is to leverage their personal expertise, whether it’s marketing, finance or politics — and be very clear about what you’re asking them for.

Be prepared — Have a goal for every meeting. Be thoughtful ahead of time, and articulate up front what you hope to accomplish. This may sound like common sense, but I can cite numerous meetings that I’ve sat in as a board member when that hasn’t happened. There’s an old saying known as the 5 P’s of success that is attributed to former Secretary of State James Baker: Proper preparation prevents poor performance.

Be strategic about your agenda — When planning your board meeting, don’t put the most controversial or important subject at the top of the agenda. This may sound manipulative, yet from my experience, board meetings begin with a high level of energy: Everyone has an opinion about the topic on the table and wants to be heard. This excessive energy diminishes as you move on. Granted, you want to encourage lively debate and avoid rubber-stamping. Yet if you begin with the most controversial item, you can get bogged down and run out of time before covering all the issues that need to be addressed.

Keep directors in the loop — Don’t assume that your board knows all you know. Bring them information that will be valuable in their decision-making. This can include trends, information and key data you’ve been exposed to. Our vice president of entrepreneurship sends a consent agenda to board members several days prior to our quarterly meeting, and it provides a summary of what’s going on in her department. There aren’t necessarily items she will elaborate on during the meeting, but they provide context, which is important because a lot can happen in between board meetings.

I also recommend that you avoid “acronym bombing.” At the foundation, our educational programs tend to have long names, and we automatically refer to them as acronyms. Although this alphabet soup is second nature to us, it can sound like secret code to board members and be confusing and off-putting.

One final suggestion about data: Make sure the information you provide is relevant to their role. Don’t overwhelm your directors with the kind of minutia that could distract them from big-picture issues and direction-setting.

Ring the bell — Board meetings are a wonderful forum for explaining your programs, celebrating successes and giving employees recognition. I also like to ask employees to present information to our board, which puts them in a leadership role and can help hone speaking skills. It’s also downright refreshing. Board members get tired of listening to the same cast of characters meeting after meeting.

Showcase partners — Similarly, the board meeting is a great opportunity to highlight your partners. As a nonprofit foundation, we don’t operate in a vacuum, and partners are fundamental to our success. I suggest not only talking about your partners (so board members understand what they do), but also to invite partners to board meetings from time to time. Having third-party validation about your work is huge; you’re not just patting yourself on the back. More important, it deepens your relationship with partners.

Get involved in recruiting — I believe CEOs and senior managers have a responsibility to both recommend and recruit board members. After all, you know your organization best and will recognize who could be helpful to its continued success. Think about this when you’re out meeting people and networking. Keep a list of potential candidates, even when there isn’t an immediate opening on your board. Reflect on the skills and personalities of potential board members — and consider their potential chemistry with other board members. This doesn’t guarantee your candidates will be selected, but it certainly increases the likelihood.

Have some fun along the way — Board meetings shouldn’t be adversarial or intimidating, although they can be. At the foundation, our quarterly meetings are held over the course of two days, and we host a dinner reception for board members after the first day’s session. This event is meant to be social. The idea is to relax and catch-up on what’s been going on in our lives. We also try to hold one offsite meeting per year where we can tag on a visit to either entrepreneurs we serve or partners we work with.

In summary, the best board-CEO relationships are based on mutual respect, commitment and trust. Doing such things as avoiding surprises (I even showed my board members this blog), keeping directors informed in between meetings and introducing them to employees and partners are essential to building strong bonds. And it will enhance their ability to add value to your organization.

(Published Sept. 14, 2021)