Behave Yourself:
Tips on Effective Board Behavior from those who Know How
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
Board Behavior
Getting on a corporate board is a big challenge, but the challenges do not cease once on a board. The challenge then becomes, how to be an excellent board member. Poor board performance reflects badly not just on the individual women but on other women as well - one board search consultant and board member herself reports hearing the comment from many boards about a female or minority board member: "we had one but they didn't work out."
Effective board behavior depends on communication skills, strategic planning and analytical skills, specific board strategies, preparation and investment of time, and collaboration. Each of these success criteria will be reviewed separately.
Communication Skills
Tip: Board success depnds on superb communication skills and the judgment, good board manners, and people skills to clarify and advance the board's agenda.
Board Behavior
Effective board behavior depends on communication skills, strategic planning and analytical skills, specific board strategies, preparation and investment of time, and collaboration.
Communication Skills
Tip: Board success depends on superb communication skills and the judgment, good board manners, and people skills to clarify and advance the board's agenda.
Communication skills are essential to board performance, but "good board manners" and "judgment" are also critical parts of effective board participation. This involves the ability to observe board protocol, to understand the challenges and opportunities, the ability to disagree constructively and work toward a common goal with different opinions, and the ability to articulate ideas and a willingness to contribute without being too outspoken or too reticent.
Ability to listen well, courage to speak up, and patience, capability, and lack of agenda to ask the tough but tactful questions in a way that doesn't alienate others and that is helpful, not embarrassing, to management.
Ability to work with men, their egos, and their discomfort with women speaking out, finding the confidence and sense of humor to rise above sexist comments and being outnumbered to articulate a value-added comment.
Ability to be a thoughtful communicator who can cut to the heart of an issue and communicate it well to other directors, expressing ideas succinctly, persuasively, and confidently.
Ability to build consensus.
Ability to be persuasive in an environment full of accomplished, confident people, even though you are likely in the minority, and the ability to act as a peer and display the confidence to draw on examples and accomplishments from relevant personal business experience (instead of "my work will speak for itself").
Finding the balance between active listening and active participation.
Strategic Thinking & Analytical Skills
Tip: Understand the difference between governance and management.
Understanding the difference between governance and management and the resulting strategic role of the board is fundamental to effective board participation.
Strategic thinker -someone who can think broadly and strategically, can look beyond the obvious and scan for important signals, analyze situations and issues, someone who can see the big picture and cut to the core issue because you never have enough information, and someone who can identify how to move forward, how to bring discussions back to action.
Ability to function as a diagnostician, to use operating experience and instincts to ask questions of management but not to tell management what to do and not to do the job for them. One person referred to the skill of "maneuvering" - the difficult-to-master ability to think around corners, identify opportunities, and capitalize on them.
Board Strategies
Four major strategies for effective board participation were volunteered: (1) find a niche; (2) volunteer for a committee; (3) develop personal relationships with board members; and (4) find a mentor on the board.
Tip: The best platform in the boardroom is an area of expertise.
Board members take on different roles and almost get typecast - look for a niche that hasn't been filled (e.g., one person focuses on the nurse, another focuses on the political process). If you have a specialty (like derivatives or industry or functional background), you have credibility and a unique point of view. "An area of expertise is the easiest way to build credibility and influence." Demonstrate your specialized expertise to show your value to the Board.
Tip: Volunteer for an important committee.
When you're new on a Board, if you can quickly get a role, like working on or chairing a committee, it gives you a platform and immediate respect when you get something done. The Audit Committee, if you're qualified, is the best committee because it is central to the board's function and many people are afraid of it.
Tip: Actively pursue outside relationships with board members.
Build relationships with board members outside the boardroom: make introductions for them, send articles and holiday cards, serve as a broker by introducing them to people who would be helpful to them in their other business interests.
Develop stronger individual relationships with the men on the board - it is not enough to connect with the women.
Tip: Find a mentor on the board.
Develop a close relationship with another board member you feel comfortable with and respect, who can mentor you on board protocol and players, and to whom you can talk outside the Board as a sounding board for your observations, testing their validity and getting coaching on ways to approach the issue on the board.
Preparation & Investment of Time
Tip: Treat board service as seriously as your job in terms of preparation, participation, and follow-through.
Board service is not discretionary: do your homework, show up at board meetings, contribute. Take your board position as seriously as your job. Prepare thoroughly for meetings, follow through on commitments. Do not over-commit or adopt a scatter-shot approach to things outside the job - choose carefully and well and devote enough time to excel as a board member.
Boards require a huge time commitment, especially post Sarbanes-Oxley. Need to have passion for the company's mission to sustain you, the time to invest in the board, and the time management skills to ensure you have the time to invest in being a really good board member.
Poor board performance reflects on other women: Too many boards say about a female or minority board member: "we had one but they didn't work out."
Collaboration
Tip: The boardroom is the place for collaboration, not competition.
Successful board performance requires collaboration with board members, senior management, and other constituencies.
Ability to work in very collaborative way. Competitive skills may have gotten you to your leadership role, but they don't have a place in a boardroom. Competition for air time, for being seen as right is very jarring in a board setting.
Clarify your role and relationship with senior executives - being able to maneuver and manage your role well in a way that's distinct from, but also a partner with corporate executives, including your relationship to your in-house executive counterpart.