I was recently asked what it should look like to serve as a board member from the perspective of an Explorer. It’s an interesting question because the typical Explorer-type usually can’t sit still long enough to serve on a board!
I have pondered the question, and here are some thoughts.
First, I’ve concluded that although Explorer-types rarely serve on boards, they really ought to. Second, I’ve concluded that when they do serve on boards, they’re often the members who push the boundaries and disturb the management-types who often prefer predictable order while resisting risk.
So if you’re an Explorer, consider helping those organizations who need your Explorer’s visionary perspective! Here’s how.
1. Get involved with organizations for which you are passionate.
This is important in guiding where to allocate your time. It means you are pondering the things that are important to you and the organization. There were boards where I served that, truth be told, I didn’t care about enough. Over time I recognized my own lackluster participation— time, interest, generosity. Instead, connect with entities you really care about— ones that will help you become all you can be and will help you to have fun while expanding your own horizons. A little self-interest can go a long way for the good of others!
2. Be patient. This will be a hard one for you, Explorer. Some of the big issues take time to bring together. Explorers need to keep walking the footsteps, recognizing it as a journey. The things that are important to me I consider in 20 to 30 year time horizons. I keep walking in the right direction, as I understand it, and encourage others to join the journey. I take the steps that move the journey forward and consider the incremental steps necessary right now in order to keep moving in that direction. (This one is really hard, but is possible because of point 3.) Think of William Wilberforce and his multiple decade campaign to end slavery in England.
3. Keep the big picture in view. In order to understand a specific situation I try to understand the bigger issues, the desired discoveries the organization is seeking. What are the concerns and opportunities that surround this aspect of the organizations’ mission? This helps to discern what is and is not important. I spend lots of time pondering this. I try to figure the connections and ramifications of decisions. Both the short and long term considerations are necessary. On one board I serve, I once decided to read the minutes of the organization from its inception in 1865! As you might imagine, I learned a lot. I saw decisions over time that were brilliant and others that were poor. Today the organization is still reaping the results of decisions made 100 years ago.
4. Be prepared. Just like a good Boy Scout, come to the meetings having read the materials and make sure you understand the issues. Without this preparation you are always playing catch up. This advance planning also allows you to put people’s comments into perspective. Sometimes other board members bring up crazy suggestions. Without your preparation, some of those ideas can advance if not thoughtfully examined by a prepared, opposing viewpoint. When you are prepared bad ideas get bypasses before they go to a vote or before they become policy.
5. Listen. I’ve found it is best to spend most of the time listening and pondering in a meeting. Those who talk too much end up saying a lot, but if you notice, very few of their ideas move to implementation. It is the sounding-bell/tinkling-cymbal phenomenon. Listen for the important landmarks in the meeting that are worth charting on your expedition map.
6. Speak on what is important to you. I had a colleague that used to say to me, save your ammunition and keep your powder dry. It is an analogy back to colonial times. When you speak, focus on the topics and concerns that are important to you and for the well-being of the overall organization. Most of the issues at boards are routine. Let others talk about those. Save your words for the topics that will move the organization forward.
7. Think before you speak. The corollary with #6. When a person starts rambling they add confusion and waste time. They are easy to dismiss. I have had to work at this one and it is a constant struggle. I often write a few notes to myself before I speak in order to think through what I want to say.
8. Prepare reports. I have made it a discipline to never wing it in a board meeting. If I know I have a report or presentation to make, I invest time to prepare and consider it. This will gives confidence to you and also to your audience. When board members are not prepared they come across as amateurs and this affects the perception of confidence in their leadership and giving.
9. Dress for leadership. Look like you are a leader. Business casual is a minimum. Some organizations expect suits and ties, others a dress shirt with collar, dress pants and dress shoes. No jeans, t shirts or tennis shoes. As a board member you are a fiduciary of the organization, an entity that is held in the public or stakeholder trust. I do my part to look worthy of the responsibility to which I have been entrusted.
10. Give credit. Acknowledge work well done, publicly and privately. Sometimes verbally, sometimes in writing, sometimes to others.
11. Hang with the opinion leaders. This may sound a bit elitist. It is not. The issue here is getting to know the leadership. I want to learn thought patterns and what they see as the critical issues. I always want to understand both my friends and my enemies. When you study which ideas move forward and which ones don’t, you find overlapping layers of influence. This point is as much about learning as it is about getting your ideas into circulation. There is a leadership quip that A-level leaders hangout with and hire A- level leaders, but B-level leaders hangout with and hire C-level. It is true. Learn and aspire to be with the best.
12. Borrow brains. This was from a mentor of mine, Peter Deyneka Jr. He always said, “Ask others for help.” Knowing that you don’t know it all allows you to build connections and get wisdom from everywhere. All Explorers created expedition teams to support their work. There’s a reason. They built on the skills of others to get to their desired discoveries.
13. Admit when you are wrong. Others usually know it before you. Acknowledge this and move on. Taking responsibility diffuses further issues. Failure is a part of exploration. If you’re not seeing occasional failures, you might not be an Explorer! Boards that cover up bad decisions, refusing to admit them, usually die by those decisions.
14. Get good people around you. If you have the authority, look for others to be on the boards with you that have superior skills in areas the organization needs. Another saying, “it is hard to fly with the eagles when you are running with the turkeys.” I have been deliberate on who I recommend as candidates for boards and deliberate on who I prefer to not be on boards. This is a role that demands skill. Some folks should be volunteers and committee members, not board members.
Okay Explorer, get out there and be the kind of board member everybody wants to be.