- Kyle White

10 things you often aren’t told when you become a board member

Set aside personal biases

As a director, all the decisions you make at the board table should be in the best interest of the organization. This may mean setting aside personal interests as a board member of the organization.

For example, raising housing charges may negatively impact you individually as a member of a housing co-operative, but the increase may be necessary for the health of the organization. As a board member, you should make the right choice.

Everyone around a board table comes from different backgrounds and brings with them a variety of experiences and ideals. Recognizing and confronting our own biases will contribute to better decision-making and, in turn, better organizations.

Being a (good) director is a lot of work

Helping to run an organization takes a significant commitment. However, it’s not always clear just how much (often unpaid) work is involved. Serving on a board of directors, especially if you want to be the kind of director who contributes to discussions and makes meaningful decisions, is tough.

If you join a board, expect to spent time reading meeting documents, engaging stakeholders, networking and promoting the organization, and researching or exploring ideas. All this will take some time but can lead to positive outcomes and better results from your organization.

Diversity enriches decision-making

From more women serving on top corporate boards to a federal cabinet that ‘looks like Canada,’ diversity is a hot topic these days. Whatever your feelings on the overall trend, if you’ve served on a board you should recognize the positive impact diversity has on decision-making.

People with different backgrounds and experiences bring new and different ideas to the board table, challenging norms and questioning directions. This can help shake things up or create new opportunities. Increasing diversity on boards enriches the discussion and quality of decisions.

You (probably) know less than you think

New board members can face a steep learning curve. Attending meetings, passing motions, and making policy may sound straightforward, but often requires some proficiency in finance, the regulatory environment and technical practices. (Not to mention the small ‘p’ politicking involved in influencing change.)

If you don’t have a commerce or business development background, being on a board will definitely help your ability to read financial statements and understand cash flow. Likewise, unless you’re a policy nut, rules of order for meetings will probably be a new experience for you. Take it in stride. It’s all valuable, if sometimes tedious, experience and know-how.

Some well-prepared organizations have onboarding processes for new board members, but many do not. Fortunately, everyone around the board table brings their own unique expertise with them and most will be happy to help you learn the ropes – just don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Do more than just attend meetings

Boards are often portrayed as solemn bodies of decision-makers that sit around a grand table discussing business and debating ideas. You might find yourself in this type of setting (if so, congratulations, you’ve made it!), but it’s much more likely that the board table will be a kitchen table and meetings will be a bit more dynamic.

Much of what volunteer directors do takes place outside of board meetings. Whether this means attending events on behalf of the organization, helping at activities, or engaging stakeholders, you’ll likely do a lot more than just attend meetings.

You will encounter free-riders

As mentioned, serving on a board can be a lot of work and you’ll inevitably encounter directors that do not pull their weight. (Perhaps a director is serving simply to pad a resume.) This can have a negative impact on all directors as the work not being completed by one board member needs to be picked up by everyone else.

These situations can be difficult to deal with. So, it’s important for organizations to be up-front with prospective directors about the amount of work they’ll be expected to complete.

Addressing conflict is part of the job

This may not apply to all boards, but it is likely that some sort of tension or conflict will arise that you’ll need to address. This could range from issues with staff to dissatisfaction among shareholders. As directors, we should act in the best interest of the organization and respond to any situation with professionalism.

It is especially important for founding directors to include provisions in their bylaws that provides a process for dealing with situations where conflict might arise so that future boards have a recommended path to follow.

If you’re not comfortable dealing with conflict or making difficult decisions, consider working with the board’s chair or a fellow director to outline a plan. Following difficult decisions, it might be useful to draft a policy based on what your decision taught you to help guide future directors through similar situations.

Consult your shareholders

A co-operative belongs to its shareholders. As a director, you have a responsibility to act in the best interest of the co-op and in a way that benefits its shareholders. As a shareholder yourself, you probably expect to reflect the interests of shareholders in general. But people often have different motivations and perspectives, so seeking the input of others on major decisions is a good idea.

Boards that are out of touch with their shareholders often make poor decisions and face backlash at annual meetings. Facilitating opportunities for regular engagement with shareholders and using their input will likely increase the board’s confidence in its decision-making.

You’ll meet some great people

Most of the people that volunteer to serve on a board are great individuals (which is not to say paid directors are bad people!). Volunteering and serving on a board is a great way to meet people with similar interests and a concern for their community.

While you might get frustrated with fellow directors from time-to-time, you’ll likely form some good friendships.

It’s rewarding

Okay, the nominating committee may have mentioned this part when they encouraged you to join the board, but it’s very true. As a director, you can shape an organization and put your skills to use in a meaningful way.

Creating policies and making decisions that improve peoples’ lives or grow your business can provide a lot of personal satisfaction. As a director, there’s been a few days when I’ve come home from a board meeting and told my partner “we made some really good decisions today.”

Doing good, feels good. Plus, because you have an interest in your co-op and its well-being, participating in the decision-making process will give you some peace of mind that the co-op is in good hands. (It is in good hands, right?)