What makes a great board member

Having been on numerous boards in my career, I have often seen the good, the bad and definitely the disgusting, sitting side-by-side.

For many the position of board member is no more than a glorified management role and although such stance may be appropriate in a small, unambitious business, it’s not the right attitude for the growing company.

As with many situations, it is not one thing – and rarely one person – but the sum of the whole that makes a great board. There are, however, some distinguishing factors that make a high performer.

Based on the assumption that a the board member understands the company’s priorities and issues (though sadly I have met a few that didn’t), here are the traits that make a great board member:

1. When you are in the room, you are in the room

This means you are not checking your emails or taking the odd call in the coffee break. The whole of your attention is on the matter in hand. We all have 1,001 things going on at the same time, but a high performing director gives his/hers all to the meeting.

2. You come prepared

If you haven’t read all your papers before the meeting, two things could be wrong. One: you haven’t given it the priority it deserves. Two: you have been sent too much information, or have been sent it too late. If it’s the former then that’s neither fair on the people who have spent time preparing it nor on your fellow directors who need your input. If it’s the latter then do something about it. Suggest changes to content, format or timeliness.

3. You contribute to the debate sensibly and constructively

That means no digging your heels in without cause and accepting criticism without taking it personally. It also means asking the questions no one else wants to ask, but is desperate to know. Don’t try to dominate the conversation, but listen. Most importantly: don’t pre-judge.

4. You stay positive without being an ostrich

Make hard decisions and stand by your actions. Know when to laugh and when to be serious. There is always space for a lighter touch in very difficult situations, if done appropriately.

5. You leave your management role in the office

Come with your strategic head on and don’t be tempted to become buried in the minutiae of the business.

6. You maintain your integrity

It’s the only thing you can truly own.

7. You admit your lack of understanding

Chances are that if you don’t get it, you’re not the only one.

8. You don’t let anyone bully you and you’re no bully yourself

If you are neither but it’s happening in your board, do your best to stop it.

9. You’re honest with yourself about the value you bring

You also know when to stand down.

10. You make sure to gain experience outside of your board

Whether it’s a non-profit company or a school governor, it doesn’t matter. Without a doubt my skills have been honed by watching others in action and that includes learning what not to do as much as what to do.

Jo Haigh is head of FDS corporate finance services and the author of “The Financial Times Guide to Finance for Non Financial Managers.” 

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