BOD 101: What You Need to Know Before Joining a Board of Directors

Amy Thomasson
January 05, 2021

Joining a board of directors represents both highest level of volunteer responsibility and the greatest opportunity to effect meaningful change within an association and its member community. The benefits of serving on a board are numerous, and range from profile enhancement, to skill building, to improving the careers, health, or lives of a particular population. While a seat on a board can feel like the ultimate validation of a career spent climbing the association ladder, it’s important to conduct thoughtful reflection before leaping to the next rung.

Last year, I joined the board of directors of EverThrive Illinois, a nonprofit organization working to improve the health of women, children, and families throughout Illinois. In preparing for this role, I spent a great deal of time thinking about, and asking others about, what distinguishes an excellent board member from a seat filler, and how to decide whether a particular board role or organization is right for you. In conducting my research, I connected with Janelle Brittain, Owner and CEO of Dynamic Performance Institute, LLC. Janelle serves as an executive coach and board trainer and I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with her at a speaking engagement. Here are her answers to my most pressing questions in acclimating to my new board role that can be helpful to anyone considering board service.

What measures of due diligence should candidates take before accepting a board position?
Janelle: Look at yourself first to make sure there is a fit. Being on an Association board of directors requires more time and attention than you’d expect. Some estimate 200-250 hours per year. So it is important that if you’re going to spend that time and effort, you make sure it is something you are passionate about. Do you like thinking through tough problems with others? Do you have a diplomatic communication style so you can disagree agreeably?

Then look at the organization. What is the level of health and stage of growth of the organization? Obviously, a young organization or one that is on rocky times will take much more time and may require special skills to be an effective advisor. Over the next year or two, most associations will have special challenges keeping their membership, holding conferences and stabilizing their finances. Can you help with creative out of the box ideas? Can you keep your enthusiasm up during challenging times?

If the answers to these questions is “Yes,” then it may be right for you.

How should a new board member prepare for his or her first board meeting in order to make a positive impression?
Janelle: Do your homework! Before the first board meeting, read the meeting minutes of at least the last two board meetings. To find out where they see the organization going, have conversations with key people such as the CEO/Executive Director, president of the board, chair of any committees you might be on, and any other strong power players on the board. Read all of the reports submitted before the board meeting. If you have questions about them, talk to the writer of the report to ask your questions before the meeting. Take time to reflect on what are the most important issues for the Board and any thoughts you have about them.

How can new board members understand and navigate the interpersonal dynamics and culture of an existing board?
Janelle: The interpersonal dynamics of board members can be the biggest headache of your being on a board. And you want your ideas to be heard. So at your first Board meeting, listen and watch the other board members. What communication style does each tend to use: directive, collaborative, reflective, or supportive? When you need to convince a person of your idea, remember to present it in their communication style.

Watch for negative behaviors, such as alliances that can turn into fighting factions. Observe the conversations that happen outside the boardroom: Are they focused on tasks or complaining about each other? Is there a domineering person who squashes other’s ideas and will only accept their own ideas? What can you do if there is unhealthy interpersonal dynamics on a board that is holding back its ability to be effective? You can call in a board coach (like myself) to analyze the situation and bring it to resolution.

What advice do you have for new board members looking to stand out and demonstrate results within the first year of service on a board?
Janelle: Where are there some quick victories? Is there a solution to a problem the Board or organization is facing that you have an idea for that would be quick, inexpensive and visible? Build a celebration around the accomplishment.  That creates a positive “we can do this” momentum and focus that is really needed today. 

Personally, as I begin to acclimate to my new board role, I have thought of a quote from management guru Peter Drucker. “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It confers responsibility.”  The responsibility for steering an organization in a positive and productive direction rests in the hands of its board and executive director—drive carefully.