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Do's and Don'ts of working with boards

boards management Feb 21, 2023

If you are a leader (or aspiring leader) of an arts or not-for-profit organisation, you will be working with a board of directors.

How to work with your board is one of the big topics my clients want to talk about: especially if it is your first time working as a CEO (or equivalent).

I have run arts organisations, supported government-appointed boards and councils, and been a Chair and member of a few arts and community boards.

So based on my personal 20 years+ history, and the experiences of clients and colleagues, here are some of my personal golden rules for an effective and productive working relationship.

DO be professional and respectful at all times. Your board is probably made up of volunteers, who are giving you their experience and expertise. Treat their input, connections and expertise as gold.

DO NOT be obsequious. You are a fellow professional to the board members, appointed by them to do a professional job. Apply your judgement to all board suggestions. If you do not agree it is the best way to proceed, say so.

DO ask for help and assistance when you need it. A good board will appreciate working in a culture of no surprises and will give you their support.

DO NOT lie (ever) or hide things from the board. Learn how to present issues in a timely fashion (ie early as possible) and in a way that the board can get across the information quickly and take action if needed.

DO make recommendations. Make it common practice to present issues with a proposed solution. The board may want to go a different way, but you have considered the issue and given options.

DO NOT assume the board knows as much about the organisation as you do (given they are not on the ground day-to-day. This includes key dates. Give plenty of warning and send reminders.

DO respect board members that have more corporate knowledge than you PLUS their professional, general and life expertise.

DO NOT be defensive if there is feedback or criticism in a meeting. Take a deep breath and give space for the board’s concerns. Remember it is their role to ask the right questions and at times challenge (as well as champion) you.

DO manage expectations. Your board may want everything done now or even quicker. Develop a strategic or business plan that is realistic in what you can achieve. Then report against this plan regularly. Use a traffic light system or similar rather than lots of text.

DO NOT over promise. Stretch goals are great, but check in that you have the resources, time and space to make it happen. Hope is not a strategy. Neither is wishful thinking.

DO plan ahead. Have an annual schedule of board meetings that tracks all the regular reports, strategic and compliance matters that need to come to the board. This should include annual budget,with appropriate time to review.

DO NOT expect your board to always agree to things in the meeting. Give sufficient time for matters to be considered, including issuing key papers well in advance of regular reports. 

DO ask for regular feedback and review of your performance, in a professional context. Also remember to consider and be responsible for your own professional development needs, as well as your staff members.

DO NOT be scared of your board. If someone is intimidating, get some advice on how best to deal with that person (preferably not from a fellow board member!).

DO get support outside your team and board members. This may be your friends and family, but even better, have a professional network of peers or the safe space of a mentor or coach.

DO NOT be reactive. Don’t wait for your board to come up with all the good ideas. Regularly survey and reflect on your environment for opportunities.

DO sort out your delegations. Be clear and up front about what you have permission to do: especially around committing resources of the organisation.

And my number one rule!

DO SAY THANK YOU A bit of appreciation and gratitude can go a long way in nearly any relationship, including professional ones. This can be a simple note after a board meeting, thanking members for their time and input, with a reminder about upcoming key dates and next meeting. (You can also summarise key actions out of the meeting at the same time instead of leaving it for the minutes of the next meeting).

Taking a bit of time to invest in some of ;your most important stakeholders will pay dividends in your quality of working life and your professional goals.

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