The Essential Keys to Being a Good Board Member

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The key to having an effective board is simple – have great board members. But what does it take to be a good board member? The personal characteristics of each member are critical to the successful operation of the board. While all board members understand and execute their basic responsibilities, exceptional board members go beyond the basics and are intentional and attentive in their approach to board service. Successful board members are not only defined by what they know but also by how they work. So how do board members make sure that they contribute to the success of the board?

Following Mercuri Urval’s, one of the leading global Executive Search firm’s general leadership schemes, let’s discuss some pertinent skills for successful board members in three categories:  Envision, Engage, and Execute.


As a board member, how can you advance the board’s capacity to develop strategies and deliver results?

Understand the business.

A great board member needs to have relevant context surrounding the operations of the business to offer on-point and actionable advice. The best decision making will be aided by board members who have a unique perspective based on their insights into the nuances of an industry. There are many complexities in any given business model. Appreciating and understanding these nuances greatly impacts strategies, marketing, finances, branding, regulatory policy, cyber security, and other areas.

Additionally, board members who are familiar with business operations through various stages of the business can offer important insights and foreshadowing as the business continues to grow. Likewise, board members who have expertise in the various functional aspects of the business are pertinent in foreseeing challenges and opportunities the company may face. A board member needs to be able to analyze, constructively challenge and hold accountable the executive management team.  This will be done with an understanding of the business and its current risk environment.

Ask the right questions.

Intentional questioning is a critical capability for any board member. Asking the right questions will eliminate confusion and inspire fresh thought in others. Utilize open-ended questions to encourage explanation and further conversation from which everyone can learn.  It is important to ask follow-up questions to establish clarity and understanding, rather than simply accepting the status quo. The best questions and answers, come from intentional effort and thought.

Exercising great judgment.

In many ways, the job of a board member is essentially an ongoing process of exercising good judgment. A board member with reliable judgment aids the business in avoiding frivolous issues and assists in navigating troublesome situations when they do arise. Wisdom is the cornerstone of great judgment and is usually cultivated from a combination of experience in tough situations, experience in failure, and intuitive intelligence. As a new board member, it may take time to build your confidence and experience in decision making and exercising good judgment. Seek out a knowledgeable mentor who embodies both wisdom and experience.


As a board member, how do you meaningfully engage with the board and the executives?

Create rapport between board members and executives.

The partnership between the board members and the executive leadership is an important element of a strong board and successful business. Developing this relationship is a top priority and requires commitment and effort from all involved individuals. The success of this relationship, and the organization, is built on trust. A good board member ensures there is an open line of communication between themselves and executives which allows both board member and executive to serve as an adviser for one another. Having a trusted colleague on the board, and vice versa is an invaluable benefit in this regard.

Understand your role and the balance between the board and the CEO.

Your role as a board member is to oversee, not execute or implement. Those roles are reserved for the chief executives. While the executives maintain control of day-to-day- operations, the board should be mindful not to micromanage. Maintaining a balance between oversight and interference is key.  Board members’ efforts and attention should focus on complex, big-picture questions that bring opportunities to the organization. However, the board members must provide oversight to help ensure that the Company adheres to legal standards and ethical obligations in its operations. Every board member should be familiar with the organization’s bylaws and have a good grasp of appropriate responses to ethical issues that may arise.

Listen intently.

Listen more than you speak. Listening is the core component of effective communication. Robust and insightful discussions are encouraged by effectively listening and engaging. An exceptional board member is cognizant of the flow of conversation and makes sure they are not dominating discussions. Offer everyone a chance to speak. Understanding not only an individual’s position but the reasoning behind their position minimizes conflict even when individuals do not agree. Diversity is important to enhance decision-making. Listening for understanding encourages collaboration and eventually consensus between individuals with differing perspectives. Be sure to always maintain respect toward all colleagues and their perspectives. I have witnessed that some of the most respective and thoughtful board members do not express an opinion on every issue, but when they speak, board members listen.


As a board member, how do you successfully assure the performance of the executives, the board, and the organization as a whole?

Constructively challenge and assist.

An imperative role for a board member is positioning yourself as a mentor. Once you are familiar with the intricacies and activities of the business, you can be a resource to others. Executives often lack a confidential sounding board to ask questions or bounce ideas off regarding sensitive issues. As a person who is involved in the organization but removed from the day-to-day activities, a board member is a perfect person to offer novel and applicable insight or advice.

Similarly, as an adviser a great board member will ask questions and explore challenges that propel an executive’s line of thinking, encourage different perspectives, and identify additional issues that may have been missed. Offering your listening ear and genuine advice can provide much-needed guidance and improve executive decision-making.

Remain motivated and committed to your role and the importance of your work.

From the onset of your role, understand what you have signed up to do. Board work is a commitment of time and demanding work.  There will be meetings, committee duties and preparation that will demand your time and attention. Successful organizations require engaged board members who are consistently motivated to look out for the best interests of the organization and shareholders. As a board member, you are an ambassador for the organization. Know what is going on within the company and within the industry to recognize opportunities when you can best promote the organization.

Being a great board member means being an active force in the organization’s ecosystem, actively promoting its interests and sharing your resources and networks. Board members cannot take a passive approach to their role and wait for issues to arise. A good board member is alert for signs of trouble as well as opportunities for advancement. Actively monitor the organization to ensure that you are one step ahead of problems instead of solely reacting in crisis. Remain energetic and passionate about your role while keeping up to date on learning new information that will make you invaluable to improving the organization and its objectives.

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