At the recent launch event of DiverseCity onBoard’s latest course, Series 2: Governance Through the Stages, an armchair discussion moderated by Ontario Nonprofit Network board chair Robin Cardozo offered insights and tangible strategies for board members at all stages of their governance journey.
Joined by panelists Joyce Barretto (boards of Ontario Brain Institute and the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority) Stacey Berry (Toronto Board of Health) Alfred Kam (Markham Public Library Board) and Suthen Siva (board of Pathway to Possibilities), the discussion highlighted 10 key takeaways on the benefits and challenges of serving on boards, how to prepare for your board responsibilities, and the inspiration board service can bring to your personal and professional life.
1. Enhance your leadership skills
Being on a board means having exposure to a wide range of governance issues, challenges to solve, and interactions with a variety of professionals. As one panelist noted “the leadership skills and exposure you can get is tremendous, boards are a place where you find your voice and build a great network”.
2. Make a difference
Boards are a platform that provides you the opportunity to impact society by contributing your skills, talents, and experiences. The experience allows you to initiate change from the top at the governance level. Board service can also help you find deeper meaning in the work you do at work, at home, and in the community. “Making a difference in the community and in people’s lives”, was an important benefit one panelist noted, “it helps you tighten your skills and meet people where they are at”.
3. Where do I start?
Prior to committing to the responsibilities of serving on a board it is important to ensure you know the level of involvement that is required of board members. In particular, one panelist highlighted the importance of understanding the difference between serving on a working board versus a governance board. Training can help prepare you to understand and navigate these differences. Another way to better understand the board is to work on a subcommittee prior to joining the board. Finally, don’t be afraid to approach a board member to ask about their experience on the board.
4. Training and readiness is key
The key is to be ready and vigilant in understanding your responsibilities. Prior to serving on a board, it is essential to do your research and engage in your responsibilities enthusiastically once on the board. Learn what work is expected when not around the board table, and be aware up front of the time commitment required.
5. Listen, watch, and research
As a board member, it is critical to have clear documented expectations about your role and responsibilities. Make sure you ask all the questions you have and speak to other board members for advice and insight. You also need to understand the culture of the board. Listen, watch, and research – then you can determine how you can add value.
6. Stick with it!
Serving on a board can feel intimidating and daunting at first. But, with the support of your fellow board members and network, you can learn and mature into your role on the board over time.
7. Develop new skills
The leadership skills acquired while serving on a board can open up new doors within the board. As one panelist, who went from director to chair of the Markham Library Board, explained, new responsibilities such as succession planning can help you more fully understand the needs of the board and the organization. A strong chair will create the opportunities for board members to have impact.
8. Transparency between the board and management is essential
As board members, it is important to learn the organization’s management structure and its relations with the board. If a smooth transparent culture exists between the board and the management, organizational objectives can be achieved more effectively.
9. Navigating different board terrains
While the principles of governance remain the same, how they are implemented are different based on the maturity of the organizations. At any stage of the organization, make sure you are measuring results and not activities.
10. What you learn will stay with you always
The lessons and skills learned as a board member are extremely valuable, allowing you to contribute and add value not only to the organization but also in your professional and personal life. “I would have started my board career earlier,” noted one panelist, “the skills are transferable to a professional realm.” ‘Serving on a board helps develop your leadership impact,” noted another, “it allows you to build relationships with new people and build confidence along the way.”