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The Marathon that is Board Service

OKAY, I'VE BEEN OVERTAKEN BY THE 2012 OLYMPICS, hence the title for this post.  As I watched the men's marathon today I couldn't help draw some parallels between the long race and my own relatively new service on a nonprofit board.  People who know me know that I'd have trouble running up and down my driveway, but this comparison helps me grasp what I've been feeling lately about living up to my board's expectations even when it was hard for me to do so.

Respect:  The first parallel has to do with why any one of us decides to join a board.  Jason Karp writes about marathoning, "Tackling 26.2 miles is a long way to run. Respect the distance and prepare for it. Confidence comes from being prepared."  Most of us take on board work because we believe we bring some talent to the table -- we have a passion for the cause, our knowledge and skills complement and strengthen those offered by others, and/or we provide access to needed networks and funds.  We agree to occupy a seat that brings with it a variety of challenges along with great emotional and intellectual rewards.  We need to respect the fact that, once we say yes to board service, we're in the race for several years.  Are we prepared for it?

Training:  Serving a board term well requires unflagging commitment.  It's not just about showing up for meetings and events -- it's about showing up prepared and ready to participate.  It's about taking leadership when given it; exerting leadership when there's a void.  It's about turning others on to the work of the organization with our enthusiasm and engagement.  It's about making time to hone our skills and knowledge so we can bring our A-game over and over again.

Pacing:  Some of us start our board service by quickly establishing ourselves and our expertise.  We want to make a mark and leave no doubt that the nominating committee was brilliant for recruiting us.  Or we're given an assignment right out of the starting gate that requires immediate attention.  It may not sink in until much later that we're running a marathon, not a sprint, and that pacing and strategy are the keys to longevity and impact in the boardroom.  

The energy of a board may seem slow moving to the sprinter.  It's a deliberative body that needs time, information, and a good bit of care to achieve its best results.  While they clearly must perform in the present, boards must keep one eye focused on a distant horizon.  Board members who fail to understand this will burn themselves out too quickly or quit the race out of frustration. 

The board service marathon is not for the faint of heart.  Not if you're in it to win it.

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