Better Boards: Recalibrating Reflexes

Imagine a professional whose success in her day job depends on an unyielding mastery of the details and a fine-tuned control over the execution of all activities.

Now imagine that successful professional bringing these same strengths—the ones that make her a standout in her field—to the work of being a board member for your organization.


It is incredibly challenging for some volunteers to initially understand how skills they rely on every day in order to be successful can become potential liabilities when serving on a board.

Helping them recalibrate the reflexes that serve them so well professionally should be a discussion item during board orientation, as well as subsequent meetings.  Here's a simple exercise to start that conversation in a non-threatening way.

Ask individuals (or small groups) to generate a list of the 5-10 qualities, skills, and characteristics required to be successful in their respective fields, the ones they most look for in candidates and/or the ones they rely on most for their own achievements.

Now you introduce (or have the same participants generate) a list of the qualities, skills, or characteristics associated with the most effective board members given that the board's work is policy formulation and long-term strategic direction. 

Compare the two lists and discuss which professional capabilities will serve them well on the board, which ones may need to be dialed down in intensity or use, and how that can be done. This is a simple way to begin the process of helping board members recalibrate their professional reflexes to match the demands of their volunteer board member role.

As Gallup has noted in their strengths-based research:  Weakness fixing can prevent failure, but strength building leads to excellence.  We must help board members gain awareness and adopt habits that leverage the professional strengths appropriate to their board job description and manage around their professional capabilities that are less desirable in the work of board governance.


Bob Van Hook said...

This is an astute observation, Jeffrey. I am working with just such a group. The "managing around their professional capabilities" takes a deft touch (and patience). I wonder what is the required skillset for executives and elected leaders to do this kind of managing successfully. Thanks for the post.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Great question Bob. For me, part of it would include a facilitative mindset ... accepting where people are at;, knowing what results you want to achieve; and helping build the trust, openness, and safe climate that allows people to discuss bridging the gap.

It also probably has an emotional intelligence component to it, no? being self-aware enough to know when you are getting frustrated with the conditions, but being smarter enough to know it's almost irrational to expect people to act very differently in an infrequent board member role than they would in their full-time professional role.

Jeff Hurt said...


Great post. I would add that the board members would also need the ability to balance motivating staff and volunteers with encouraging them to maintain the ship. There would also need to be a mindset of "What would it take to make this happen?" instead of the kitchen-sinking of why something can't be done.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...


Love the emphasis on "what would it take to make this happen?" Asking that question alone would probably lead to much more progress being made.

One of my facilitation mentors taught me that whenever people start explaining why something can't be done, ask them again if they find value in the idea being proposed: would this be a good thing if realized? In other words, keep the conversation focused on the agreement about the idea's value rather than the disagreement about its immediate feasibility.