A colleague of mine was asked to participate in a discussion this week about her experiences as a board member. Knowing that I've worked for and with a good number of boards, she wanted to get my take on some of the questions the discussion was going to be structured around.
Her first question to me was, "What do you think are the characteristics of a great board member?" Funny she should have asked me that as I've been thinking about that recently myself. I ticked off a few characteristics -- passionate about the organization's mission, forward-thinking, optimistic, etc. "What about skills -- like financial acuity or a legal background?" she countered.
Skills are good, too, I agreed, but I was thinking about a retired history teacher who was on the board of a local history museum. Sure, the guy knew A LOT about history, but he monopolized conversations and dampened the group's ability to generate ideas. You wanted to say to this fellow, "Hey, you're not standing at the front of a classroom anymore!"
I brought myself up short then. "You can have a person with some terrific skill set, but if he or she doesn't fit the board's culture or the organization's culture, then it's likely not to be a productive fit for either." Hmmm.....chosen for fitting in with the existing culture or enhancing it or....changing it. These reasons alone are enough to make board recruitment a much more intentional activity.
My colleague felt that she and her organization did that -- more or less -- through the committee system. Almost everyone on the board had served first in a committee capacity. Performance there would indicate how well or poorly an individual would perform at the board level. "And in a small town, you pretty much know who's going to be good and who isn't," she concluded.
It was time for me to throw in one more thought: if recruitment is truly based on attributes and skills, the process may well lead to people you do not know or know well. Boards tend to look a lot like the people who assemble them. And because board members typically serve for years (or decades or lifetimes) at a time, perspectives and approaches to the work can become routine, even stale. By their nature boards are about stability; the downside is they can run out of oxygen. It's the recruitment process that ensures there's always enough oxygen in the fish tank.
Photo: African Cichlid Tank