What makes a great board of directors?
It would be easy to answer this question with cliches and broad statements such as, “board members are passionate about the mission,” or “great boards work as a team.” In reality, the answer is far more nuanced, and the needs of any given organization vary to such an extent that no one board format or style can be perfect for everyone.
But that explanation doesn’t really provide any insight for new companies and nonprofits seeking to build an engaged, proactive, and functional board. So, to that end, here are a few primary attributes to look for in prospective board members.
Ultimately you want to have a board that encompasses all of these aspects.
A board of directors needs people who are committed to putting in hours, probably several hours each month from a number of individuals. There is no replacement for the value of time given. Organizational leaders need access to board members who are willing and able to jump in and help, get their hands dirty, or otherwise act as an on-call resource for guidance and direction.
While not every board is a working board, every board does need to have people willing to work. It is easy to over-value an individual’s monetary contributions, network, or the status that they provide. But it is also far too easy to discount the value of hard work, accessibility, and time commitment.
One of the primary responsibilities of a board of directors is to provide the visionary direction that internal leaders may lack the time to pursue. One pivotal skill that a board of directors needs among at least a few board members is creative, innovative vision. For a small company or nonprofit to succeed, they need to differentiate themselves from competitors. They need to provide value that is missing in their community or vertical. They need “idea people.”
The visionary is the kind of board member who often struggles to dive into the weeds and provide immediate solutions to pressing day-to-day issues. At the same time, they elevate the conversation and bring everyone else out of the weeds when necessary in order to see the potential of a big idea.
Every board of directors benefits from the personal and professional networks of its board members. That goes without saying most of the time. Of particular note, however, is the power of a truly networked member or three. It is unlikely that any given board will have the talents, skills, and passions necessary to make it work without outside assistance. While some boards are truly massive, even to the point of being unwieldy, very few have everything they need to be successful, often due to a lack of bodies or a lack of engagement.
This can be remedied by have a handful of truly passionate members who can convince their own networks to become active, engaged, and committed. Such a board member can often bring funds in at key moments. They can also bring in diverse skill sets to help out in a pinch, often pro bono. While such a networked individual is often too busy to give much of their own time, the have generally invested an enormous amount of energy into their relationships, which can pay dividends at critical times.
There is no “right” way to build a board of directors. On the other hand, there are numerous ways to build one poorly. Having passion isn’t enough if that is all that one has. But it also isn’t enough to have 12 board members with massive networks but nobody around with the time to help and provide advice when it is really needed.
A truly great board is going to have a few passionate members among the group. Often these members will be founders or long-time employees. The passionate and engaged board members can inspire the same in the others in order to leverage their time, vision, and networks for the good of the organization.
Are there other attributes you find critical to building a great board? Please share them here!