Private Company Directors

Three Phases on the Journey to Be an Exceptional Board Member

Board members want to make a quick, positive impact. However, “quick” has a different definition to the board compared to the C-suite. A successful board member needs a strong foundation that takes time to build. The 100-day plan is meaningless. Putting onboarding into strategic phases can bring clarity to becoming the best board member you can be.


Phase one

Four elements are critical during the first two quarters of director tenure.

  • It’s helpful to contact your new board colleagues fairly quickly after being invited to join. This is especially important for members you’ve not met in the interview process. Request a half-hour conversation. Prepare three or four questions focused on learning about the board member and their informal role. Every board member has one. Remember, the conversation is not about you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by small-world connections.
  • It can be easy to misstep in a board meeting when you don’t have the full picture or aren’t aware of historical conflicts or sensitivities. It’s ok to ask for help from a longer tenured board member, think of that person as a mentor. There should be a few directors who will happily help you. If not, perhaps this isn’t the right board for you.
  • You may know the industry, but every company has its own culture. Listen carefully and if something seems unusual or out of the norm, see above and reach out to fellow directors.
  • A handwritten note or at least an email thanks to fellow directors  is a must as you begin your role. When directors appreciate, respect and — yes —enjoy each other’s company, tough discussions are easier.

Phase two

After you’ve attended a few board meetings, the following suggestions can help you in the next phase of your journey to be the added-value board member.

  • Questions are essential — the key is how to pose them. Ask questions in a challenging, but respectful manner, then listen to the answers and build on them. What is the best way to phrase a tough question or during at a tension-filled time in a meeting? What if you thought about it this way…? Have you considered XX ? If you had to choose a solution right now, what would it be and why?
  • After a few board meetings and a better feel for board culture, it’s appropriate to share 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. When the CEO asks for your help, provide it and build that relationship.
  • Our sensitivity to the concerns of those around us has dramatically increased. While this is beneficial, it also can result in fewer smiles. Board meetings have funny moments that can help to bring us together. Humor resides in each of us. Let it out! Use appropriate 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 fellow members to see another side of you. I like shoes to 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.
  • Much has been written about the Navy Seals and their vulnerability with each other resulting in incredible teams. While boards are not a team in the traditional sense, teamwork is an essential element. 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." Admitting to lack of understanding or asking for further clarification is absolutely acceptable and will help to also build trust.

Phase three
The true challenge on the journey to being an exceptional director, to use an old term, is continuous improvement. Board evaluations or effectiveness assessments are extremely useful when both strengths and opportunities are constructively communicated and used to help improve performance. They can make a huge difference for individual directors as well as total board effectiveness. Similar to employee surveys, it’s critical to use the information and have consistent follow up and measurement of progress.

Recent conversations with successful CEOs, chairs and directors on how to be an exceptional board member coalesced around a few themes. Respect and humility were mentioned most frequently followed closely by asking questions to learn/share vs. opine. Another theme was dedication and a true commitment to company success as well as to its brands and mission.

Some key takeaways from these conversations:

  • Understand, listen critically and then probe — respectfully.
  • Challenge the status quo; be tough but respectful.
  • With great humility, share individual wisdom and experience (both wins and losses).
  • Have a sincere desire to help the business and passion for its success.
  • Be willing to test your point of view and respectfully test others with the goal of helping to collectively make the tough decisions.
  • Have the courage to publicly change your point of view after listening and probing.
  • Believe in and support the company’s core values, mission, the vision and brand(s). Otherwise, exceptionalism won’t happen.

A good board member, leading by example, can help the board become exceptional by:

  • being a catalyst for “collective genius,” building on fellow directors’ experiences and expertise.
  • helping fellow directors work through differences beyond official board meetings to speak with one voice to management, avoiding unproductive and conflicting signals.
  • demonstrating a high level of caring for fellow board members, for executives, for employees. It’s best described as trust.
  • embracing personal feedback, both formal and informal, to further improve their ability to contribute to the board and business.
  • being active beyond board meetings, sharing helpful information, intriguing articles and making it easy for executives or fellow board members to connect/converse and, most important, learn.

Most of us have been coached or given advice to “accentuate the positive,” but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of unacceptable actions in a board room. Exceptional board members:

  • Never ask “gotcha” questions.
  • Never act as though they are the “lord of the board” with the right answers all of the time.
  • Never hijack board dialogue.
  • Never are the loudest, most insistant voice in the room.
  • Never fake it and act as though they've read the board book when they haven’t.
  • Never attack board peers’ points of view, motivation or commitment.
  • Always remember, you are not the CEO.

No matter what type of board you serve on, public, private, family or nonprofit, completing the three phases will help you to achieve the goal of becoming an exceptional director.

Lynn Nowicki Clarke has been on more than 10 private and family-held middle-market boards. She is currently chair of the board of Nielsen-Massey Flavorings, governance chair for Abarta Coca-Cola and Vollrath Manufacturing, and a director on several other boards. She is also managing partner for The Feel Good Labs, a young company in test with a natural pain cream at CVS & Target.


Directors Record