Get Your Board On-Board – No Passengers Please!

Boat or bus – how does your board of directors ride? Is yours an engaged board or is it a constant challenge to get them to contribute more than just turning up for board meetings? This is a constant issue raised by nonprofit CEOs and EDs. What’s the solution? Most importantly do you have the right people on board and do they understand their roles and responsibilities?

Succession planning and active recruitment efforts are keys to reducing Board turnover and assuring continuity. From time to time, I find myself referencing Jim Collins of Good to Great fame and, in particular his metaphor of “getting the right people on the bus”. In other words, pay attention to engaging the right people and then focus on what you want to accomplish. Recruiting, developing and recognizing your board members will go a long way to creating a successful organization. It sounds simple enough. So, why, if this is the right approach, do so many organizations have ongoing challenges with engaging their boards?

Taking the bus analogy further, a recent blog by Rebekah Burch Basinger expanded my thinking on how we view and, more importantly, how we should view our boards, namely: Get your board off the bus and into the boat. Bus or boat, why does it matter? They are both modes of transportation after all. Rebekah challenges leaders with this metaphor: “People on a bus don’t set direction. They don’t watch the road. They don’t worry about maintenance of the bus or the cost of filling it with fuel. They’re not involved in recruiting other riders. And it would be unusual for passengers to advocate for better highways or speak out in support of public transportation.”

Does this sound all too familiar with regard to your board or at least some of your board members? Are they simply occupying a seat and along for the ride or are they engaged members of a high-performance team?

Rebekah suggests that thinking of your board as a rowing team where “everyone in the shell matters” is a GREAT way to gain perspective on board building and performance! Although most of us have never participated in rowing, I’m sure we can all imagine the chaotic results if the team is not in sync and ALL contributing. The commitment of each and every board member makes the difference between success and failure.

There are many reasons why board members may not be aligned or engaged. As I mentioned, the first step is getting the right people for the stage in the organization’s life cycle and for their connection to your mission. Actively seek out and get to know potential board members. Determine whether their values and your organization’s align and do they have the skills, experience and passion that your organization needs to be successful. Start by creating and sharing a clear vision and mission and a strategy for the path ahead in which potential board members can believe.

Winning rowing teams learn and train together to create the best result. Each position and team member on the boat is different. Leadership should be clear on the roles and responsibilities of board members and mutually agree on where each person can uniquely contribute while continuing to grow their knowledge about the organization. Assuring a clear on-boarding process is also key to getting them engaged from day one.

To maintain an engaged and motivated board member throughout the year, you must intentionally identify activities that support their own growth and development or uplift them. Sitting down with every board member at least once a year, unless the size of the board makes it impractical, to find out where they are, what they need and to determine an action plan for them is a fundamental and yet often not done activity.

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