It would appear that I have reached the age when a person starts looking back over his life to recall what, if anything, he might have accomplished. Sometimes this represents a painful look at the past and missed opportunities, while other memories bring a measure of satisfaction.
In my own ruminations one thing seems to stand out: I have spent a lot of time working on boards and committees of a number of organizations. Out of curiosity I began to try and recall the organizations, my length of service on their boards and some recollection of the experiences.
I can report to you that in the past 50+ years I have served on the boards of 18 organizations with a combined service of 131 years. The organizations have been varied: three educational institutions, five civic or church groups, eight industry and two corporate boards. In addition, there have been countless standing, ad hoc and advisory committees and task forces where I have served.
There are two questions I have been asking myself as a result of this exercise. First of all, did anything beneficial result from my service on these boards and committees? And second, did I learn anything that is worthwhile passing on to others?
In the first instance I believe the answer is yes, but Yes, some good things did happen–although not as much as could have had other board members and I been better at the job. In answer to the second question, I do believe I have learned through experience and observation a few things that might be helpful to present and future board members, and that is the real purpose of this piece.
My experience on corporate boards was very limited, only four years, so I will leave advice in that arena to those more experienced, other than to note there is a considerable difference between serving on a corporate board and the board of a volunteer organization. Corporate boards are more stable, with the presiding officer usually in place for a number of years. Volunteer organizations tend to have boards that move their leaders in and out of office like a conveyor belt producing, in effect, a new board every year.
Because volunteer boards turn over so rapidly, preserving corporate memory is often difficult and successive boards tend to plough the same ground. When I was elected to our local school board, the first thing the district superintendent did was to deliver to me copies of the past three years minutes of board meetings. He advised me to read them so that I would know the issues previously discussed and acted upon. He said that this saved a lot of time in needless discussion and also that I would be better informed regarding district issues. He was right and the board wasted very little time dredging up old chestnuts.
My advice to new members of a board: study the history and recent actions of the board you are about to join. For example, one of the benefits of the 100-year history of the National Association of Life Underwriters published 13 years ago is that it provided an excellent resource for new board members to bone up on what the organization had accomplished in prior years.
It would be interesting to know how many National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors board members read this publication prior to running for election to the board. A sense of organizational history of prior struggles and triumphs can give one a base of knowledge and power that the uninformed board member never achieves.