Monday, September 7, 2015

What Are You Looking For In Your Next Board Member?

I've written before about my experiences on the Board of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives. Now in my last year of service, having chaired the Board last year, I have the somewhat traditional job given to many past chairs--chairing the Nominating Committee. Having been chair of the association, and about to depart forever, I guess I'm uniquely qualified to determine the types of individuals who should follow in my footsteps.

So, what kind of individuals am I looking for?

It's a great question. And the responsibility associated with the position has made me stop and think more critically about it than I otherwise might have. As I find myself chatting with nominees, essentially interviewing them as I might interview job candidates for my own association, I find my mind and my questions focusing on three key areas. And they may not be what you expect.

1. What do you do in your day job? I'm a firm believer that the world a nominee lives in is the world they will bring to the Board table. If their day job has them tactically executing someone else's strategy, then tactical is the mindset that they're going to have in Board meetings. They'll end up arguing with staff over how programs should be executed rather than working with their fellow Board members to decide which programs produce the results we're looking for. Very few of us in the association world have jobs that are 100% strategic, but experience formulating strategy, and adjusting that strategy when the envisioned tactics meet the real world, is an absolute prerequisite.

2. Who do you blame when things go wrong? To me, the most often correct answer is "no one." When things don't go according to plan, the simple and usually wrong answer is that it is some one person's fault. It's often not even a team's fault. When things go wrong, it is almost always due to a deficiency in the overall system. The organization lacks the resources. The people in charge of execution lack the competencies. The strategy itself was not well matched to the reality of the situation. Board members need to be looking to these three options before deciding to assign blame. They are far more often the real root of the problem, and people who don't recognize that and don't know how to deal with those problems will make poor Board members.

3. Do you control your own calendar? In other words, if the Board decides to add another meeting to its calendar, and that meeting requires an overnight stay away from your hometown, do you need to get permission from someone else, or can you commit your own time and resources to that meeting? Professionals who lack the freedom or authority to make those kinds of decisions are also usually not ready to be making the kind of decisions that need to be made around a Board table. That may sound harsh, but it's the truth. A Board needs to be comprised of people in charge of their own careers, not people who need permission from their supervisors before making any new commitments.

Do you agree with my areas of emphasis? What else do you think is absolutely necessary in new Board members? Let me know you're out there by leaving a comment.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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  1. Eric, thanks for this post. As someone who works with and serves on boards, I would offer different questions than those you've proposed above:

    1. What does governing mean to you?--Working in a tactical job does not necessarily mean someone is a tactical thinker. Asking someone to share a personal perspective on what it means to govern, however, will help you separate the candidates with the right mindset and temperament from those who are too inexperienced, just trying to build their resumes or power hungry.

    2. What do you think about when something doesn't go as expected?--Rather than loading up the question with concerns about the assignment of blame, I would prefer to understand what goes through someone's mind when they are dealing with failure. The clarity of the thought process a candidate follows in addressing a problem--or the lack of one--can be quite enlightening.

    3. What kinds of conversations do you enjoy most?--The ability to integrate board service into your schedule is a selection criterion that can be handled in another way. A more important attribute to understand is how someone will participate in board conversations, and what unique contributions she will make to those conversations.

    Eric, I very much appreciate you putting the issue of board selection on the table. It is a serious concern for associations that we don't discuss enough, and I very much appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts on this important topic.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Glad to know you're still reading. Your comments are always welcome and helpful.