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May 5, 2017

3 Ways to Be a Strong Board Member

Two board veterans give their takes on what makes a great board member.

My last article, How to Have a Better Board Meeting, generated a number of comments and discussion. Great board meetings come from great boards, and great boards are made up of great board members. So what makes a great board member? To get some different perspectives, I talked to people who have experience sitting on many corporate boards—public, private and family business—to get their takes.

Elaine Eisenman is the former dean of executive education at Babson College, a founding member and advisory board member of the Women Corporate Directors foundation and has served on public and private boards including DSW and Miravan. James Altucher is an entrepreneur, former hedge fund manager, best-selling author and podcaster who has say on numerous public and private boards. Here are their keys to being a strong board member.

Build Strong Working Relationships

By far, the most important element of being a great board member is being committed to having strong working relationships with the other directors. “You don’t have to be best friends,” Altucher says. “You just have to make sure that you have a working relationship so when you need to coordinate in a hurry you already know how to work together.”

That’s especially important when the board needs to come together in high-stakes situations. “Sometimes the most important thing you need to do is to be able to call the other board members one at a time to get them behind a certain action,” Altucher says. He recalls a time when a board he was serving on had to make a quick decision on something that was life or death for the company. “It was late night phone calls and tracking down busy people. But that’s what an engaged board member does when you need to,” he says.

Maintaining good relationships is everyone’s responsibility, and investing in this is part of being a great board member. The way to do that is to attend board dinners, sure, but even more fundamentally to make an effort to reach out to the other members of the board and get to know them between board meetings.

Building and maintaining strong relationships certainly happens within the board meetings themselves. “The basics of strong communication in meetings are that people respect each other, are looking for the truth rather than positioning for power and recognize when they have expertise and when they don’t,” Eisenman says. “And they have to be able to admit when they’ve made a mistake.”

Supporting that dynamic requires self-awareness and self-discipline. Think about your skills and strengths and also where you are not an expert. Learn to recognize your own triggers so that you see where you might get emotional, defensive or shut down in response to someone else. At its best, serving on a board can help you grow, and as you grow you become a better board member.

Great directors communicate their point of view directly and diplomatically. “The best board members speak up and ask questions in the meetings, not as sidebars to the CEO or the chairperson,” Eisenman says. “Meetings should be structured so that all voices are heard, but directors have to take responsibility for speaking up.”

A few suggestions to help you build your skills: Ask yourself who is the most effective communicator on the board. (You can also ask others who they think it is, if you feel comfortable.) Think about the specific behaviors that make him or her an effective communicator and choose a few to practice so you improve your own communication skills.

When you are going to express disagreement, pause. Think about how the others will receive the message, then adjust your language and delivery.

Some boards need a bit of a windup. For example, say: “I am sure you’ve thought about this for a while, and I appreciate your point of view. I’d love to share an alternate opinion.” That signals good intent—you compliment their thinking—and gives them a moment to see that you’re about to disagree. Some boards just want to hear straight talk. In that case “I disagree” is far better than “you’re wrong.” Practice expressing your point of view in a way that others can hear.

Prepare and Focus

A great board member puts in the time and is focused. Reading the board book and studying the financials in advance is, of course, essential. After you’ve reviewed the materials, jot down some notes about the key areas—where the business is going and what strategic decisions need to be made to drive it in that direction.

When you’ve spent the time synthesizing your thinking and developing your own point of view and your own questions, you’re prepared to help elevate the discussion and ensure that it’s richer. You are also less likely to simply follow along with the CEO or chair or another loud voice in the room. You’re more likely to be able to maintain your conviction and have your voice heard when it matters.

During the board meeting, stay away from your devices. We all think we can listen while we email, but it’s not true. Email is the enemy of engagement. Not only does it take part of your attention, but it also signals to others that you are not really present and available for discussion. That implication affects the entire board.

Eisenman also mentioned that logistics matter: “We meet in person maybe four or six times per year. Don’t rush off to catch your flight.” Arrange your timing so that you can linger at the end of a board meeting. Give yourself breathing room to be able to handle last-minute discussions or to be present in case the meeting runs over. Sometimes the most important conversations happen at the very end.

Open Your Rolodex

I’ll admit we don’t really use rolodexes anymore, but a key function of a great board member is to help expand the network of the company. A great board member has solid relationships and is comfortable using them for the benefit of the company.

“It often happens, especially with the startups, that the CEO will say, ‘We would love to show our product to Google,’” Altucher says. “A good board member will already have that relationship or can get it through their network.”

Think proactively about how your network can help this company. Ask the CEO if there are companies or relationships that might help that haven’t been discussed, and encourage the CEO or board chair to make this an agenda item for board meetings.

Whether you aspire to sit on corporate boards, are preparing to sit on your first board or have many years of experience, picking an area to improve in and taking steps to do so will raise your game.

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