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Observations Of A Board Member

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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.

I have also observed that all too often new board members arrive “down on what they are not up on.” The most common mistake these people make is that they believe there is a so-called “clique” that runs things and that the average board member makes little difference. Somewhere there is an organization where this may be true–but I have never seen it.

My experience has been that people who feel “left out” are the ones who are unprepared and therefore cannot effectively participate in the deliberations. My advice? If you feel left out, try doing your homework and come to the meetings properly informed, although if you do too good a job, you run the risk of being labeled a member of the “clique.”

The authority of a board member varies with the organization. It is important for board members to understand not only their own limitations, but those of the board as well. Again, going back to my service on the school board, at the beginning of each term, the county attorneys office would send an attorney out to explain to us our authority and limitations. The most important point was that as individuals, we had no power. It was only as we sat as a board that we could set policy and make financial decisions.

In one way or another, organizational bylaws set pretty much the same standards for all boards. This is not always understood by board members so it is important that it be discussed to avoid embarrassing or even illegal actions.

One of the most important elements of board service is the proper relationship between board and staff. I have heard staff people demean the work of volunteers and one I recall even said, “If the volunteers would get out of the way, we could get the work done.”

On the other hand, I also recall new members arriving to serve on the board bringing with them the attitude, “We have to remind these people who they are working for.” Or others who have said, “I dont want to be told by staff what I can or cannot do.”

My experience has been that if you hire professional people to guide various aspects of the organization, you had best listen to them and heed their advice.

Like it or not, in a voluntary organization the staff is the most reliable repository of corporate memory. An effective board will acknowledge this and be willing to let the staff be truly honest with them when discussing propositions that may have been deliberated many times before. Too often the refrain “Dont tell me, we tried this before and it didnt work” stifles input that might have saved a lot of grief.

My best advice to aspiring board members is this: If you are not prepared to study the issues, listen to advisors and you do not have a spouse who will tolerate the time required to do a good jobdont run for election.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, February 10, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.