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Thinking of Joining a Board? Here Are 3 Things You Must Consider First

Many executives seek out board membership without realizing the tremendous commitment it entails. Here are a few things to think about before you sign on.

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As people retire or achieve success in their careers, it’s common to start considering boards. Being on a board can be fun. Some board members can even make a lot of money, but it isn’t a walk in the park. It would be a mistake to think that board membership is a small commitment — it’s huge. 

I was courted for membership by several boards, and accepted both public and private positions, but many others I had to turn down. Different boards have different expectations, and the obligations are considerable and time-consuming. It took me a while to learn this, but you can waste a lot of time sitting on the wrong board for the wrong reasons.

Whether you’re looking for a board to join or already have them courting your attention, go into it deliberately with full awareness and a sense of purpose so you can make it the most satisfying experience, for both you and your board.

Related: Building a Better Board: 5 Things Every New Board Member Should Know

Make deliberate decisions

Being on a board takes time — a lot of it — so be deliberate in your choice. Even if a board decides to court you for membership, make sure you also choose them. If you rush into a decision without intention, you can end up spending a lot of time in an unfulfilling position or with an inefficient board. 

Seek out a board that would benefit from your strengths and be honest about what you can contribute. I was filling out a form recently for one of the boards I'm part of, and they asked me to check all of the boxes among a selection of areas where I had experience. While I had experience in all of them, I didn't think I was necessarily good at all of them.

In two of the areas I might have checked for experience, I later discovered that two other people on the board were already handling those roles unbelievably well. My experience would have paled alongside their abilities and by being honest, I was instead assigned to spend my time and commitment in more appropriate roles. Know where your talents will be genuinely useful in serving the organization and where someone else might be better suited to contribute. Self-awareness and intentional consideration of your skills are assets in building an effective board.

Related: Board Diversity: Why It's More Important Than Ever

Do your homework

If you’re going to sit on a board, make sure you fully understand where the company is as an organization. How do they operate? Are they public or private? Understand the differences and know the responsibilities and expectations of each. How much time do you have to invest? Nonprofits often invite you onto their board with the expectation that you can guarantee to fundraise a certain amount of money, so determine whether any financial commitment is involved. Ask a lot of questions and fully understand what you’re about to get yourself into.

Don’t assume you know how to be a good board member — do a little research into contemporary trends and be prepared for the skills it takes. Boards consist of an evolving process, and the old men in dark suits smoking around a boardroom table are a relic of the past. Boards are now, by law, much more diverse and people are coming to realize the advantages of having broader representation.

On one of the boards, I work with a well-seasoned scientist, who's a woman, and it's been fun watching her challenge her male counterparts. A board offers the opportunity to flex your professional expertise, but you should be prepared to benefit from a diverse range of knowledge and perspectives. 

Related: How to Use Your Board to Supercharge Growth

Find a purpose

While public and private boards differ, most are highly sensitized to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria and doing the right things, so find a board doing work that gives you a sense of purpose.

I'm involved in a public board for a company whose whole reason for existing is about saving the environment — so attaching myself to that mission, believing in it and wanting to spend time there has been easy and fun. A private board I chose is very local to the state of Florida and their work benefits the public, which is also very rewarding. When companies that give you purpose experience growth, you really care about seeing them do well. 

To be a good board member, you have to feel like you're contributing to the company mission. But unless you truly believe in it, you can never do that board justice in serving on their board. Chairmen are very aware of their board members’ contributions and whether they’re acting in the best interests of the company, so you need to really believe in the mission of the organization to be of value. When you invest your passion into driving the company mission, you can be a more effective board member.

Board membership has changed a lot in recent years, especially around governance, ESG and training, and most boards are learning as they go. With so much to keep track of, companies have stepped in to act as matchmakers for people looking to be more strategic in choosing a board, even some gender-based companies specifically for placing women. Being a good board member demands a lot of time and effort, so find one where you can be particularly effective and make the most of your experience.

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