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. If not everyone on the board is working broaden the instructions to include desirable qualities, skills in their previous employment or in another role (parent, other volunteer, et al).

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. The 12 Principles of Governance that Power Exceptional Boards from BoardSource is a good catalyst for such a list.
Compare the two lists and discuss which professional capabilities will serve them well on the board and which ones may need to be dialed down in intensity or use. Now explore what support these shifts will require and how they individually and collectively can get in action:
  • How might we effectively leverage the strengths that serve you well in other roles into your work on the board?
  • What practices or processes might we want to implement to work around some of the potential weaknesses of your default tendencies?
  • What self-assessment questions might we periodically use to evaluate how you are doing in your collective work as a board?
  • What agreements should you make with each other or what discussion and decision-making norms should you establish to ensure you do your best work together?
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 their governance role.