What To Consider Before Serving On A Corporate Board, Part Two

What To Consider Before Serving On A Corporate Board, Part Two

In our last installment we wrote about the findings of a KPMG study of what’s happened in California since it was mandated that that corporate boards there become more diverse. That study had a great deal of useful and encouraging information. The bottom line is this is a great time to seek out a board seat if you have interest.

I have been privileged to be a corporate board member since 2003 and I can tell you that it has been a fascinating experience. I highly recommend it.

Before you begin to seek out a board seat, it would be best to ask yourself a few questions to see how prepared you are. We posed several questions in the previous column. Here a few more to consider:

Can you bring valuable contacts to the table?

Board directors are expected to make their network of problem solvers available to the corporation’s management team. Do you have a wide network, especially in your field of expertise, and are you generously willing to share their names? For instance, I live in Austin, a city known for its software startups. Through networking, I came across what was a leading-edge technology at the time. It allowed Luby’s to survey customers via a touch-point screen strategically located at the entrance of each restaurant. This information has helped us serve our patrons better. But even more gratifying for me was that, after a year of relentless system testing, Luby’s signed a contract with this deserving startup, which moved it into profitability.

Do you naturally bring humor to stressful situations?

Great board members, like great leaders, have a sense of humor and know how to have fun. But they intuitively understand the rules of humor and don’t have fun at someone else’s expense. Instead, they make light of themselves. Many stories told by President John F. Kennedy show the power of humor and the art of depreciation. The web post The Hill shares these memories. Take, for example, during the 1960 campaign when pundits and opponents complained about JFK’s wealth and he simply replied: “I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy. ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide.’” Or, when President Kennedy appointed his brother Bobby to be attorney general amid calls of nepotism, he replied, “I see nothing wrong with giving Robert some legal experience as attorney general before he goes out to practice law.” And, my favorite: When a young boy asked him how he became a war hero, he gracefully responded that “it was absolutely involuntary; they sunk my boat.”

Do you like to dig deep for insight?

Men and women with this gift have a natural curiosity that drives in-depth analysis. This innate talent is prized in the boardroom. James S. Turley, retired chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young, advises: “You are empowered to ask any question as a director. You are not management. Your job is to provide governance and oversight. Outside of board meetings, there is often a lot of homework to be done with managers and understanding how they see the business and how they think. These are serious roles. You don’t just hang out.”

Are you a team player?

A team player is generally described as one who communicates constructively, demonstrates reliability, works as a problem-solver, treats others in a respectful and supportive manner, shows commitment to the team, and is skilled at building on the ideas of others. Are these your strong suits?

Are you optimistic?

An optimistic mindset enables a board director to view a conflict as a problem to be solved. Rather than focus on blame, he or she will focus on solutions. Boards need men and women with this mindset to avoid gridlock and to move the firm forward. Ask yourself: Would your colleagues describe you as seeing the glass half-full rather than half-empty? Make no mistake: Boards want what Seth Godin calls “a generous skeptic.” That’s the director who can take the opposing position and help shed light on its merits. But, at the end of the day, the best boards work as a team and move ahead with an optimistic, can-do attitude.

Are you willing to speak up about sensitive topics?

Boards depend on directors who not only speak up about sensitive topics but also are skilled in framing their points in an honest, confident, respectful, and positive manner. Sensitive topics can range from nepotism and outward signs of prejudice to unanswered telephone calls and queries. In making such probing yet diplomatic remarks, it’s especially important to show respect for the work of the team. Does this kind of diplomacy come naturally to you?

Can you cast the lone vote?

Are you capable of casting the lone “no” vote? Can you do so even when your vote is clearly out of step with valued colleagues? My friend and valued colleague Ralph Hasson contributed this question and remembers the sobering experience well. On a critical vote, he stood alone and voted “no” when the majority of his fellow directors voted “yes” and one abstained. Ralph recalls that afterward, the director who abstained turned to Ralph and said, “I wish I had voted ‘no.’” Like Ralph, I have cast the lone vote. You may be uncomfortable when you do it, but you eventually experience a satisfied feeling of knowing you have looked inside your heart and stood for your values.

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