Why you should(n’t) join/leave that board. 

also at Medium

If you identify as a ‘high-performance’ individual, chances are good that you may encounter opportunities to join governing or advisory boards for private or public sector organizations at some point in your career. I’ve served on nine boards to date and can attest that board service can be among the most professionally and personally rewarding experiences you can have. Given that, when an opportunity for board service arises, it may seem like a no-brainer to just say “yes!” But, when does it make more sense to say “no thanks” or “not right now?” 

I recently made the decision to roll off a corporation’s governing board after six years of service. The difficulty I experienced making that decision prompted me to consider a framework that could clarify and simplify the decision for myself or others. There are many potential factors that you may wish to take into account. Below, I recommend the top things to consider. Because it’s the most important, I spend a little more time on the first. 

I hope others find this helpful as they decide whether now is the right time, or this opportunity is the right opportunity, for board service. 

1. Purpose alignment

Board service is typically “extracurricular”—something you undertake above and beyond your ‘day job.’ This means it often competes for time—and energy!—that you’d otherwise spend on family, friends, work, or pursuing other interests. If you are lucky, strategic, or both, board service may be something you integrate into your day-to-day. But, make no mistake, there are always trade-offs—even if they aren’t visible at the time you make them. 

I remember once coming home from a week of ‘long days’ at both my ‘day job’ and a two-day board meeting. My wife felt excited to see me and wanted to know all about my trip. By way of explaining why I wanted to cancel some of our plans at the last minute and just have some quiet time, I said, “Whew. This week just got the best of me.” She replied, “And I guess we just get what’s left?” Ugh. You do not want to hear that from the person you love most in the world.

By contrast, I’ve returned from many intense, week-long trips feeling completely jazzed up—like I could run a marathon the next day and then host a party after. I know that if I have to be away from my family, I’d much rather come home as that person. 

So, what explains the difference? For me, its not a straightforward matter of time management; its about the energy you get from strong alignment between your sense of purpose and the purpose of the organization(s) you serve. 

In “The Board’s Role in Embedding Corporate Purpose”, McKinsey’s Celia Huber, et al, underscore why purpose-driven leadership is more important for firms than ever—and the crucial role modern boards play in leading the firm towards purpose-oriented outcomes. I wholeheartedly agree—and think purpose plays and even bigger role in the organization-board-board member dynamic. Specifically, I believe that how board members personally relate to the firm’s purpose has big implications inside and outside the boardroom. 

My experience is that when you do not share an intrinsic connection with a firm’s purpose, it’s a lot harder to show up as the best board member you can be. While you might join the board with a sense of commitment and the best intentions, over time, you might begin to skim reports, surf through discussions, see board emails as distractions, and experience board meetings as draining. Unsurprisingly, your relationship to this board appointment may begin to seep into other areas of your life—causing you to show up as frustrated or preoccupied when you should be present with others.  In those scenarios, you’re not only taking up a valuable seat that would otherwise allow someone else to add a lot of value— candidly, you’re also wasting time and energy that could probably be better spent elsewhere. Whether you consciously recognize it or not, it takes a toll. 

Weirdly, you find that even though your board commitment takes time, somehow you feel like you have more time in your day.

When you feel resonance with a firm’s purpose, however, it can be a little like falling in love. You look forward to every email, meeting, or discussion as a chance to make a meaningful impact. You discover a new level of awareness when reading reports or in dialogue—making helpful connections or surfacing insights that add real value. Firm management feels inspired by you—and you notice they take your input seriously and it helps them solve problems that, over time, build capacity to overcome even bigger issues. Weirdly, you find that even though your board commitment takes time, somehow you feel like you have more time in your day. You feel more energized. You’re able to bring new perspectives to your day-job. You feel excited—and in turn, are exciting to be around. You get the picture.

Alignment between a firm’s purpose and your own sense of purpose should be a a crucial factor in your decision to join, defer, or leave a board. The magnetism of a shared sense of purpose generates incredible benefits for both parties—while a disconnect can be draining, and ultimately cause you to add less value to the organization than they have a right to expect from a board member. Keep in mind that a firm’s purpose isn’t always limited to its vision, mission, sector, or industry. I’ve noticed that at different times in my career, I’ve been drawn more to organizations in “reinvention and realignment” or “build infrastructure to scale” modes. So, a firm’s roadmap for the next 3-5 years may be more important to your evaluation of purpose alignment than its vision, mission, sector, or industry. 

2. Exposure

Your ability to make meaningful contributions is a big part of what makes board service so rewarding—but it isn’t everything. Your board service should also generate a lot of value for you! This can come in many forms, such as

  • exposure to diverse perspectives and talented people who otherwise might not be in your professional circle;
  • experiences with new problems, industries, or sectors;
  • opportunities to deep dive into different areas of organizational governance (who knew corporate finance could be so interesting?);
  • and more!

As you contemplate whether or not to undertake a new board appointment, consider what exposures it may provide. Depending on your interests and where you’re at in your career journey, it may pay to double-down in an area you have expertise in—or it may be more valuable to look for new exposures beyond your day-to-day experience. It may also be helpful to explore what committee appointments might be available to you on a prospective board, as that will influence where you invest a lot of your time and attention. 

3. Board caliber

It took me a while to really learn that not all boards are created equal. Given the role they play and how they show up in popular culture, it’s easy to assume that boards and board members are all strategic and high-performing. The reality is, they’re not. The caliber of a board can be influenced by a lot of factors, such as:

  • the talent profiles of individual board members;
  • the Chair’s (or Executive Committee’s) ability to tap into the collective intelligence of the group;
  • the board’s own culture and governance structure;
  • the degree to which board members understand—and faithfully abide by—governance principles and best practices. 

When considering a board appointment, do yourself the favor of not assuming you’re the only one with something to prove. Consider ‘interviewing’ the Chair, incumbent board members, or members of the firm’s management team. Some potential questions to ask include:

  • What problems are you focused on solving? Why are those the “right” problems to solve right now? Are there problems you’re specifically not focusing on—why? 
  • Describe a recent decision the Board made. How did the decision arrive at the Board? What did the deliberative process look like? What factors did the Board consider? Based on what you know now, was it the right decision? 
  • Describe a time the Board had to make an uncomfortable decision in order to fulfill its fiduciary responsibility.  
  • How is the Board currently challenging the firm? How did it communicate that challenge? How is the firm responding? What data are you monitoring?
  • How does the Board engage with its shareholders/stakeholders? What mechanism(s) do you use to ‘listen’ to those groups? 
  • When you take on a board appointment, you’re committing to spend a lot of time with a specific group of people. It pays to make sure you feel inspired by them—individually and as a group—or that you’re clear on the value exchange you’re hoping to realize. For example: do they understand good governance? If they do and you don’t, it could be a good opportunity to learn. If they don’t and you do, it could be frustrating and you could spend a lot of time running in circles. If they don’t and you don’t, it could be a waste of everyone’s time.
  • Boards are filled with people who aren’t the right fit for the organization’s needs right now. As a high-performing leader, you owe yourself and the organization better than to become one of them. 

4. Management caliber

When considering a board appointment, you might be tempted to overlook the firm’s management team. Don’t. It’s important to evaluate them, and the board’s relationship with them, as part of your decision for at least two reasons.

First, the management team is the board’s principal agent for driving the purpose and performance of the firm. It won’t matter that the board is comprised of visionaries who can craft audacious strategies if the management team isn’t sufficiently skilled, aligned, or engaged. Whether your board experience feels like an uphill slog or an exhilarating relay-race will come down, in no small measure, to the caliber of the management team.

Second, the caliber of the incumbent management team should tell you a lot about the caliber of the incumbent board. At the end of the day, the chief responsibility of a board is to ensure the firm is equipped with effective and responsible management. This may look a little different across sectors, industries, and scales—but signs of inattention are pretty consistent. If you’re looking at firm management and feeling pretty underwhelmed, you’ll almost certainly feel underwhelmed by the Board. 

As you consider the caliber of firm management, consider the following:

  • Does the organization have a visible commitment to quality? Does it set standards that seem almost unreasonably high? 
  • To what degree is the organization obsessing over its own performance? How well is it measuring its performance and reporting performance vs goals to stakeholders/shareholders? 
  • In what ways is the organization trying to disrupt itself? How willing does it seem to confront tough decisions? 
  • What is the organization’s relationship with risk? 

5. Your own biases

After you consider how an organization’s purpose aligns with you own, the potential exposures you might experience, and the caliber of the board and management team, its worth turning the magnifying glass on yourself. 

When the opportunity for board service arose, you likely had an instant, though potentially sub-conscious, “yes” or “no” answer. Unless your logical analysis of factors like the ones I’ve listed above uncovers anything significant, you’re most likely to go with your instinct. But, that doesn’t mean your instinct supplied the “right” answer. Consider some of these biases that might color your decision:

  • Impostor Syndrome. Its real. My encouragement is not to make other people’s decisions for them. If the Board’s nominating committee or firm management thinks you’d be a good fit—trust them. Then, focus your attention on whether you think the fit is right for you. 
  • Sunk cost bias occurs when you are reluctant to abandon something you’ve already invested in. If you’re currently on a board and considering another term, this could be affecting you—especially if you feel something might get dropped when you leave. Remember: if the board is worth staying on, it’s also worth leaving (i.e., they are capable of surviving your absence just fine—and if they aren’t, its probably time to go anyways). 
  • FOMO. If you’re an incumbent board member, you likely have been part of shaping strategies that are yet to unfold—and it’s so tempting to want to be there to experience them come to life. If you’re considering a new board appointment, its easy to assume really exciting things are happening—and that you want to be a part of them! Don’t forget: there are a lot of exciting things happening outside the board, and you may not discover them unless you free up or preserve some space for yourself.  
  • Guilt. This principally affects nonprofit board members—but can show up for anyone, especially where personal or professional friendships are involved. You may have been recruited by someone you know, or you may have developed a strong relationship you don’t want to abandon, or you might not want to appear like you’re “quitting.” Any of these can be a source of guilt when you contemplate leaving or passing up a board appointment. Remember: saying no is often an act of courage and wisdom—and one that any friend or team will be proud of you for making for the right reasons. Who knows? You might be inspiring someone else to make a tough decision. 

Many other thought patterns can complicate a decision like this. Ultimately, discovering the right answer for you might be as simple as answering these questions:

What excites you more? What gives you the sense that it may capture your excitement for 2-3 years to come? Is it the board appointment you’re contemplating right now—or that “maybe something else sometime soon” that hasn’t manifested itself yet?  

If the former, then take the leap. If the latter, consider making or protecting space for whatever’s next. Either way, I’m sure the decision will help you clarify your sense of purpose and lead to opportunities to contribute meaningful value to others. 

Invitation: What advice would you underscore or add for those considering joining or leaving a board? 

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