Creating a Great Board of Directors

When we have a great board, it makes the mission (whether it is making great products, providing outstanding services, curing AIDS, or ending malaria in Africa) easier to achieve. So how can a CEO use his/her board members to maximize the enterprise's success?
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Having a strong board of directors has never been more important in today's environment. The economy remains problematic. Competition is fierce. The media is filled with stories of unethical behavior or abuse of organizational stewardship. Whether you are involved in a corporation or a non-profit organization, you need a cohesive and focused group of advisers who can help the CEO and senior management move through these turbulent times.

But in our drive for success, we sometimes forget that our board should be composed of extremely talented individuals who run incredible enterprises. Their time is often divided among many activities. At a minimum, we should never waste their time, which is a precious commodity.

When we have a great board, it makes the mission (whether it is making great products, providing outstanding services, curing AIDS, or ending malaria in Africa) easier to achieve.

So how can a CEO use his/her board members to maximize the enterprise's success? Here are seven initiatives from top organizations I have worked with which achieved their organizational goals and had great success:

1. Provide explicit written "Board Expectations" to all individuals who wish to seek election or appointment to the board. This, by itself, helps reduce the number of individuals who want to join the board for the sole reason of adding the experience to their resume or to network "industry players" with existing directors. While it cannot be a requirement to join the board, strongly encourage participation in the advocacy priorities of the organization, if you have them.

2. Create an "On-Boarding" process for new directors so they understand the focus of the enterprise and their roles. Hold an orientation for all new members so they can understand the mission, structure, long-term strategic objectives, and goals of the organization for the next calendar year. Make it clear what you expect from them and what they should expect from you.

3. Provide a binder of board responsibilities and other valuable material that the directors will use as their point of reference. Having the information online is terrific, but handing them a binder makes it real. Most, if not all of the board members, will read the materials because they have it in their hands. But be sure each board member signs a statement that he/she has read and understands the responsibilities. And include all important dates and events in the binder so they can get them on their calendar in advance.

4. Assign more senior directors to mentor new members. Pick from your most seasoned (and reliable) directors and ask them to help new members to learn what is really important and what their oversight function is in helping set strategies for the organization. New directors are sometimes nervous often asking themselves questions such as "What do I do?" or "How should I engage?" A mentor program lets them hit the ground running and keep organization momentum moving forward.

5. Alternate board seating arrangements so directors are constantly developing new relationships. We often think that all directors know each other and are familiar. But, in reality, their busy professional and personal lives often make it difficult for them to really get to know to each other. Mixing where people sit allows the board to get to know each other better.

6. Create a real or perceived "director ascension ladder" so board members who wish to be in the leadership will have to "go through the chairs" or the various board committees. This allows the individual seeking a leadership role more experience in all aspects of the organization while allowing you, if you are the CEO or senior leadership, to see their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, your Board Chair will be a stronger and more effective partner.

7. Empower your board chairman to speak frankly and appropriately to board members who self-define their participation as "trouble-making" or are inappropriate in language or demeanor to staff. No enterprise can afford to have a director, no matter their stature, who acts inappropriately or destructively. This is precisely why a chairman of the board exists. And he or she needs to stand tall when they are needed.

A great organization can only exist with a great board of directors. The board needs to stay focused on the mission of the enterprise, and the strategic questions about the future, while also serving as the sounding board for enhancing enterprise value. Expect your Board members to be demanding and to be outstanding stewards. But creating a great board just doesn't happen. It will be up to you and your leadership team. Having a weak or ineffective board probably means you are doing a disservice to your organization.

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