Four Tools to Be an Effective Board Member

By Lynn N. Clarke


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Next week is your fourth board meeting. You're coming up on a year's service. Congrats. You probably have a fairly good sense of your fellow board members, especially if you used some of my suggestions from the previous column.

Now, it's time to begin to add value. No pressure. Of course, there's pressure. As your board tenure increases, the most important relationship is the one you have with the voice in your head. "Gee, I haven't said much in this meeting so far—what if they don't think I'm adding value?" "That was a really stupid comment—what was I thinking?" It may be tough to believe, but the board meeting is not all about you. Time to remove yourself from yourself.

Here are a few suggestions that can help you to be the added-value board member you want to and will be.

Questions. As board members, we all know questions are essential. The key is how to pose them. A board chair I've been working with for many years provided a useful perspective early in my tenure when I wanted feedback on how to be a better board member. "You know how to ask questions in a challenging but respectful manner," Jim said. "You listen to the answers and build on them."

Until Jim's comment, I never consciously thought about how I ask questions. Now I do. How to best phrase what might be a tough question for an executive or at a tension-filled time in a meeting. It's easy to get caught up in a moment and just fire one off! It worked in CEO roles, but that's not your role.

On your journey to be an effective board member, it helps to remember a few standard ones. What if you thought about it this way? Have you considered? If you could only do x, what would it be and why?

Ideas. Now that you've been around for a few meetings, it's okay to take a risk and throw out an idea or two (but not 10). Similar to asking questions, it's important to consider how to share ideas. Intros such as "I'm still new here, so this may not be practical" or "An out-of-the-box thought: What do you think…" You will be surprised at how many times your idea will be appreciated and built on by others in the room! Warning: Never send an email follow-up to the CEO or an executive offering to work with them on building out the idea. Sounds basic, but I've seen it happen. Of course, if the CEO asks for your help, go for it, and build that relationship. 

Connecting with Humor. Our sensitivity to the concerns of those around us has dramatically increased. While this is beneficial, it also can result in fewer smiles and personal connections. Life and board meetings have funny moments that help to bring us together. Humor resides in each of us. Let it out! Use your humor to connect with others, diffuse a tense conversation, or ask a question. Self-deprecating humor works well, especially when you're relatively new on a board. It allows your team members to see another side of you. I like a fault. Consequently, I pack too many resulting in a heavy suitcase. Both shoe variety and suitcases filled with bricks provide a great source of laughs.

Showing Vulnerability. Much has been written about the Navy Seals and their vulnerability with each other resulting in incredible teams. In fact, this was a topic introduced by Brené Brown at an NACD Summit a few years ago. While boards are not a team in the traditional sense, teamwork is an essential element for an effective board. It can be a long journey to become an effective member of a board that is a high functioning group. Sharing a vulnerability is one way to speed up your "belonging."

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you share your deepest personal fears or challenges, but it's okay to admit a weakness and use it to show your vulnerability. For example, in an executive session, as we prepared to give feedback to the C-suite on a big initiative, a fellow director kindly took on the role of notetaker. As the newest board member, I was designated to speak first from Bill's notes. I didn't look at the notes prior to speaking because I thought I remembered everything. When I began to share the discussion, I couldn't read his handwriting and, more embarrassing, I couldn't remember what had been said, including one of the points I had made. In a totally un-board-like manner, I gave up, admitted I couldn't remember, and asked for help. Bill laughingly admitted he is known for terrible handwriting. This is an example of a successful combination of vulnerability and humor. 

Lynn Clarke
Lynn Clarke is lead independent director for Vollrath Manufacturing and serves on the boards of A. Duie Pyle, Basic American Foods, Diana’s Bananas, and the NACD Carolinas Chapter. She also is the operating partner for Jelly Belly Sparkling Water and was the 2021 NACD Private Company Director of the Year.