Navigating Boardroom Dynamics

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The boardroom can be an intimidating place for new members.

Being asked to join a board of directors is a milestone in the career of a C-suite executive. Board membership suggests that not only are you good enough to be a leader at your own company, you’re actually so good that you can advise other companies as well. This implication makes board membership a prestigious and highly sought-after assignment.

For new members, however, the boardroom can be a scary place. Walking into a room full of seasoned executive leaders and knowing that you are expected to make a valuable and unique contribution is undeniably intimidating.

Luckily, new board members can take steps to prepare themselves for this daunting yet wonderful moment. Educating executives for this eventuality is a goal of effective online EMBA programs, such as Washington State University’s Executive Master of Business Administration Online. Full of helpful tips for new executive directors, this program prepares students for success in the boardroom—and beyond.

Why Join a Board?

Why join a board in the first place? Serving on a board requires time, effort, and commitment. With time in such short supply, particularly for top executives, some might argue that side projects such as board membership are distracting at best and overwhelming at worst.

Yet board membership is a coveted goal for many people, with good reason. According to the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC), executives have 6 compelling benefits for serving on a board:

  • Expanding your network. Corporate boards offer unsurpassed networking opportunities. They allow members to meet top executives from many companies who have different backgrounds and insights. Board members may become real friends or, at the least, respected connections who can be assets for the rest of your career.
  • Growing your personal brand. Joining a board boosts your resume and shows other executives that you are a leader in your field. It is a great move for potential job searches down the line.
  • Supporting initiatives that resonate with you. Nearly everyone has causes that they feel passionate about. Serving on a board gives executives an opportunity to make a difference in ways that matter to them most.
  • Appreciating an intellectual challenge. For executives who love learning about new things, board membership can provide a rewarding intellectual challenge. Members may have to learn the specifics of a new industry as well as new ways of looking at and doing things.
  • Becoming better at your current job. Board members will gain insight into a new company with different methodologies, skill sets, and strengths. They will meet new people from various industries who have different roles. This exposure gives you ideas about how to approach problems and find solutions in new ways—insight that can help you not only on the board but in your executive career as well.
  • Supplementing your income. Although money should never be the main motivation for joining a board, it is a factor. As long as you enjoy the work and the people, a “side hustle” is never a bad thing.

How to Be a Great Board Member

So, congratulations! You’ve made the decision to join a board. What comes next? How do you make sure you are the best board member you have the ability to be? The Edward Lowe Foundation, an organization that champions entrepreneurship, offers an excellent laundry list of suggestions for new board members.

  • When called to serve, ask why you were chosen. Maybe you have a special skill or a unique perspective. Or perhaps you will be a replacement for a previous board member who disliked a board decision and left in a huff. It is good to know what shoes you will be filling before you arrive.
  • Learn about the industry. You need to know what a company’s competitors are doing—and how well they are doing—to effectively evaluate your own CEO. Look for market research reports and consider subscribing to a trade journal to learn about your industry.
  • Learn about the company. If you intend to guide the CEO, you need to understand how the company works. Look at annual reports and chat with managers, employees, and customers to get a good understanding of the company’s culture.
  • Be clear about your role on the board. You need to know your job. What exactly does the CEO want from you? Read through past board meeting minutes to get a feeling for how things work and get clarification from the board chair or other board members if you have doubts.
  • Learn acceptable protocol. Every board has its own ways of doing things. Find out! How much work do board members do to prepare for meetings? What are the policies about informal individual meetings with the CEO or other board members between sessions?
  • Learn from your own board. Decide which board members are best at their jobs, then model your behavior on those people.
  • Attend all scheduled meetings, if possible. You joined the board to participate, and you have a responsibility to shareholders. Additionally, many companies will remove your voting privileges if you are not present at least 75 percent of the time.
  • Come prepared to talk. Read any materials—such as documents and reports—that you receive before the meeting. By doing a basic amount of homework, you’ll be ready to engage in productive dialogue.
  • Feel free to disagree. But after the meeting ends, publicly support all board decisions. A united front inspires public confidence.
  • Take your performance seriously. Don’t rubberstamp ideas that you don’t understand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need clarification on anything. If the answers aren’t clear, insist that the CEO try harder. Always make sure you understand issues before voting.
  • Get feedback on decisions. Establish quantitative measures of success or failure. Discuss these findings at future board meetings as a “report card” on your efforts.
  • Be aware of your exit options. The rules vary between private and public companies. In private companies, you can quit (or be fired) at any time. In public companies, the CEO may not have the power to fire you, and you may be obligated to serve out a term of office. Know what you’re bound to and behave accordingly.
  • Seek continuing education. Colleges and large universities offer learning opportunities for board directors. Understand accounting practices is especially important to analyzing financial reports and statements.
  • Don’t over-extend yourself. If you are a CEO yourself, chances are you are a very busy person. Don’t agree to serve on a board if you don’t have time for it. Remember, if you do agree, you have an obligation to be there when the board meets. Make absolutely sure that you have time for this commitment.

Boardroom Bullies

Even the most prepared new board member may run into trouble when confronted with that most unpleasant of realities: the boardroom bully. According to the website DirectorPoint, boardroom bullies may constantly cut people off when they are speaking, refuse to put items on the agenda, or work behind the scenes to intimidate or manipulate fellow board members.

“Not only can these behaviors create awkward situations, they can also have a deeply negative effect on your board’s ability to function,” the site explains.

Most people will quickly see these behaviors for what they are. But what do you do about them? DirectorPoint suggests 3 strategies that are proven to help:

  • Call out the behavior. If a bully interrupts one of your fellow board members, politely step up and say you’d like to hear the end of the original comment before continuing the discussion. Do this in a way that is not aggressive, but rather focuses on maintaining every board member’s dignity and respect.
  • Encourage the board chairperson to take a firm hand during meetings. You may need to approach the chairperson in private to discuss your concerns.
  • Band together. If you are bothered by someone’s behavior, chances are good that others on the board are bothered as well. Discuss ways to create a more positive atmosphere through teamwork. By doing so, you can help the board to run effectively—and, at the same time, to make your own experience as pleasant and productive as possible.

About WSU’s Executive Master of Business Administration Online Program

To hone the skills required to be an effective board member, consider pursuing advanced education. Washington State University’s Carson College of Business delivers one of the top-ranked Executive MBA programs in the nation. WSU offers an Executive MBA curriculum designed to equip students with the tactics, knowledge, skills, strategies, and other MBA resources utilized by today’s high-profile business leaders. For more information, visit WSU’s Executive MBA Online website.


Recommended Reading:

CEOs Who Lead More than One Company 

Four Ways to Increase Your Employability in Business

Benefits of Flexible Online Learning Environments for Professionals 



Reasons to join a board –

How to be a great board member – Edward Lowe Foundation

Dealing with boardroom bullies – DirectorPoint