3 Ways to Become a More Effective Board Member

There is no question that an effective board of directors is a vital element to company success. How is an effective board cultivated? The solution is simple–by assembling valuable, insightful, and productive board members. However, the more nuanced question is: how does one become an effective board member? 

Dr. Christina Jenkins began her board work nearly a decade ago as a Bloomberg appointee to the Board of New York City health and hospitals, the largest public hospital system in the nation. She served as board chair for the Quality and Performance Committee. Since then, Christina has served as a Board Director of venture-backed companies Xandar Kardian, Madorra, and FIGUR8, as well as Board Director of Predictive Oncology and a Board Advisor to Independence Health Group. 

Through her experience, Christina has become adept in strategies to enhance the talents board members bring to their positions. She has a three part formula for success:

1. Ask the right questions

A high-performing board needs the ability to assess itself and its needs. This evaluation means the right questions must be asked: How are the applied strategies affecting the bottom line? Where are you lacking expertise? Who can you bring on to fill those gaps? 

2. Stay engaged way beyond board meetings 

Go beyond the confines of a conference room. Engagement is about the commitment to understanding the company, its operations, and its competition–and maintaining curiosity outside of meetings. Demonstrated engagement by board members beyond meetings not only builds trust, but ensures that board members are thoroughly prepared and informed on how their roles interact with the company. Christina points out, “As you think about board opportunities as a fiduciary role (stakeholder), look at things like talent strategy and risk assessment and be able to talk about how your work enables growth.” These are tangible, measurable methods for the board to focus on when bringing on members. 

3. W.A.I.T–Why Am I Talking? 

Ask yourself, “So what?” If you cannot answer this question before presenting information to the board, reconsider whether it is valuable to the growth and profitability of your company. As a board member, your ability to quickly synthesize information allows for discerning what is valuable to discuss and what’s not worth wasting time on. 

Christina shared a clever acronym that dives deeper into this sentiment. WAIT stands for Why Am I Talking? 

As a board member, you are there because you possess something the company needs. You are there to share your point of view, not just fill the air. Your knowledge, expertise and experience needs to be expressed. This lesson didn’t come easily to Christina. She had to learn how to moderate her instincts for being “too polite.” When asked about her biggest mistake as a board member, Christina recalled: 

“My mistake was in not talking enough; I was too polite for the board’s culture and did not fully share what I knew from depth of experience.  During a strategy session, the CEO presented a new service offering that would likely fail on clinical adoption for a host of reasons.  During the meeting, I said something like “Interesting!  You might consider X, Y and Z.”  After the meeting, I called the CEO to detail the grave risks and challenges I saw — and while appreciative, he offered that he and his team would have benefited even more from volleying those ideas around the board table.”

As a board member, it is paramount that you are willing to be open regarding your opinions and ideas during meetings. Waiting to express your ideas in a private setting, though it may be more comfortable, omits the opportunity for others to contribute to your sentiments and is overall less productive. Relevant information leads to relevant questions, cycling back to our first point–So, be comfortable sharing your thoughts publicly. Your expertise and advice are the most valuable assets you bring as a board member. 

If you are not yet a board member but are an entrepreneur excited about the possibility of being a board member, here’s some advice on how to get you there.

  • Former entrepreneurs are coveted for independent roles, particularly if they have a skill set that is complementary to the existing team but presently missing from the board. 

  • If the right person is available, able to give the time that is needed, and willing to work–that person will be more valuable on a board than a marquee name with some prestige. Be the valuable worker that is willing to bolster the board.

  • Former board members are great independent directors because their experience allows them to help temper any conflicts and manage the board dynamic.

  • Be present! Having someone who can be present–even if shoulder to shoulder–is crucial in the company’s growth process.

Being a board member allows you to play a key role in the success of another company and can be especially rewarding when you bring the skills and talents that are uniquely yours.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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