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Leadership lessons learnt serving on boards

Beside the normal regulatory and governance requirements, most business owners, entrepreneurs and CEOs realise the need for and benefit of reporting to a board. With the right dynamics in place a board can empower people with complimentary skills, experience and wisdom to formally advise and assist us. Equally, contributing to other businesses and organisations as a board member can be highly rewarding. Over the last few decades I have learnt some valuable lessons from serving on many different types of boards. 

Review your Commitment

Because of our busyness having more meetings slotted into our calendar can make us ask, should I really be on this board? It is a great question to ask from time to time. And we need to be honest and be prepared to resign if we cannot add value or allocate sufficient time or have lost the passion and energy to be part of a board.

Be ‘On Board’ for the Right Reasons

I’m surprised at how many people end up on a board but not necessarily for the right reasons. Some are attracted to a board due the status that comes with the appointment or the opportunity to mix with other board members we think will give us good business or social contacts.

We need to be honest about our motives and ensure we are there primarily for the right reasons. There’s nothing wrong with making good contacts as long as that isn’t the main reason we’re there.

You May Need to Pay a Price

In my mid 30s I was on a commercial board when reality soon hit. I had to work along side board members who had sizeable equity holdings compared to mine and whilst they had some good skills and at times did contribute I found my vision and values were not fully aligned to theirs. As time went by it became increasing difficult to live with the conflicts this caused.

It became clear that unless I found a way to buy out these shareholders that I would need to sell my stake. I decided to patiently wait until the right opportunity came to buy out these shareholders. To facilitate this I had to come up with a large amount of extra funds.

Once we had the right shareholders and developed a strong unified board our business was able to go in a whole new exciting and positive direction, which subsequently resulted in very strong long-term growth.

Chairman needs to lead

It’s too easy in small and even larger organisations for a board to focus too much on day-to-day management issues. This is a particularly common problem for under resourced small business and cash-strapped Not for Profits.

All board members and particularly the Chairman needs to constantly set the vision, direction and strategy for the organisation and ensure there are appropriate resources to delegate management issues to.

Putting time and energy into ensuring the agenda focuses on these important things is a key role of the board Chairman and the CEO.

Board meetings can be enjoyable!

Rather than being intimidated by boards or dread attending board meetings there are things we can do to make meetings more enjoyable.

The importance of teamwork between board chairman and CEO is a key to having good board meetings. This means both need to invest and spend time together on a regular basis focused on the big picture, opportunities and important issues

Sometimes we need to confront and not shirk some very tough issues like laying off staff, writing off losses and deciding when and how certain negative information has to become public.

Custodian of something special

There is something special and privileged about being on a school or not-for-profit board where one is not paid and the total vision is about leaving your mark and giving something back to society. I have learnt again and again you need appropriate skills and feel a calling and a passion to do these roles well.

The exciting thing is that there are more and more corporate leaders and their boards now wanting to allocate a proportion of their time and profits towards leaving a worthwhile lasting legacy.

If you can make a significant contribution as a board member to create a win-win for all stakeholders (understanding this is not always possible) that is an all important driver and motivation for joining, staying and being on a board.


About the Author

John Sikkema is a Philanthropist, Thought Leader, Entrepreneur, author of ‘Enriched’ re-defining wealth and Executive Chairman of Halftime Australia, inspiring leaders to live their life purpose now. Visit www.halftime.org.au for more information.

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