It may be flattering to be asked to join your trade association’s board but it could also be a very bad career move. So, before joining, you should conduct your own due diligence, and start by asking some probing questions.
Serving as a board member is one of the most challenging and rewarding of assignments, whether in the commercial, not-for-profit, or membership sector. But, while appointment or election may be an honour, board members have important legal and fiduciary responsibilities that require a commitment of time, skill, and resources. Prospective board members should do themselves a favour – and show that they are serious about the commitments they make – by asking some basic questions before joining any organization’s board. Probe the member who issued the invitation to join; the chief executive; the chairperson; and other current and former board members. Anyone with inside knowledge!
Start by asking for copies of the board minutes from the last 12 months and study them to see what has been agreed and achieved. You’ll find yourself defending those decisions whether you like them or not! Note how many directors showed up to meetings, and whether decisions were reflected in the company’s strategy and performance. While you’re at it find out what the organisation’s mission is, how its current programs relate to it, and if they have a strategic plan that is reviewed and evaluated on a regular basis?
Study the calibre of the other board members. Find out what experience they have, what they have done in their past careers and what their reputations are like in the industry. Most importantly of all, check out the chairman. A board’s performance will reflect their talent and management abilities. After all, this person is the board’s manager.
The chairman should oversee each meeting, keep discussions on track and on topic, and recognise when there is an issue – when a topic is too big to be solved in one meeting – and when offline meetings, or further information-seeking sessions, are required. A good chairman will recognise when specific directors are struggling or not pulling their weight, and will take action. And when certain directors are overly forceful in their opinions, a great chairman will restore balance and ensure every voice is heard before a decision is made.
He or she should also be able to tell you about the structure. What about descriptions of the responsibilities of the board as a whole and of individual members? What about committee functions and responsibilities? Is there a system of checks and balances to prevent conflicts of interest between board members and the organisation? And for your own peace of mind, does the organisation have directors and officers liability coverage?
Problems aren’t always visible from the outside. After all, a board’s job is to appear balanced and always in agreement even when it is not. So look for signs of dysfunction. These include regular resignations and appointments; organisational underperformance; the constant missing of objectives; and the CEO and senior management struggling for support. What about the board’s relationship to the staff – particularly the executive staff – and how do board members and senior staff typically work with each other?
Do a bit of probing into the finances too. Are they sound, does the board discuss and approve the annual budget, and how often do board members receive financial reports? Who does the organisation serve, and are the clients or members satisfied?
Once you’ve done all that, get down to the personal stuff. What can I can contribute as a board member? How much of my time will be required for meetings and special events? Am I committed to the organisation’s mission? Can I put its objectives above my own professional and personal interests when making decisions as a board member? Can I contribute the time necessary to be effective?
If you can answer all those questions to your own satisfaction you’re almost there. Now all you’ve got to do is get elected!
Reviewing your strategy and communications? Can I help?
Over twenty years’ association management experience.
Michael Hoare FIAM