Sometimes we are not fortunate enough to realize great advice until it is too late. Several months ago I met a seasoned board member (of public, private and non-profit boards) and we had a long discussion about board of directors’ qualifications. He provided me with a piece of advice that I’m sure many corporate board members wish they had before joining their board. The advice? “Never join a board of directors unless you would be willing to serve as chair of that board.”
Serving as chair of a board is not easy. The title carries with it additional board member responsibilities that are often unrecognized by fellow board members. So why would anyone be willing to ascend to this position? For some it is the prestige of the title: “she serves as Chair of the Board for XYZ Corporation.” For those serving on non-profit board of directors, it is often a labor of love related to the mission. In the public company space the title comes with additional compensation. Whatever the reason may be, it is not a position for everyone who serves on a board of directors – which is why the advice from this esteemed board member seemed so odd to me. He acknowledged that not everyone is meant to serve on a board of directors and not every board member is meant to serve as chair of the board. But, when an individual agrees to serve on a board they should at least be willing to serve as chair of that board if they are ever asked. Such willingness demonstrates both the individual’s commitment to the organization as well as their understanding of what may be expected of them. It also ensures that the individual will ascend to the position of board member with the appropriate motivation to learn what would be necessary to eventually serve as chair. The result is a board that is at all times working together to achieve the level of excellence which is expected of it by the organization and its stakeholders.
This advice is extremely useful for any organization as they engage in board member recruitment. Although I do not believe the willingness to serve as chair of the board needs to be added to a list of board of directors’ responsibilities, it is a worthwhile question to pose to prospective candidates, providing tremendous insight into their commitment to the organization. Whether the individual has the commensurate capabilities to serve as chair of the board can only be determined through their board service.