Serving on a board will make you a better leader

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Serving on a board of directors is a fantastic way to contribute to a company or cause. The skills that you develop will expand your abilities in ways you never imagined.

As President of a national mission–driven organization’s Board of Directors, I can tell you that serving on a board is one of the most rewarding and challenging endeavors you can take on. When you join a board, you’ll improve your business acumen, learn to make data-driven decisions, and upgrade your customer service skills. Board service will transform you into a strategic thinker, an effective communicator, and a well-rounded leader.

You will align the company’s products, services, or programs with its mission and business goals. You’ll influence the chief executive and other directors to buy in to your strategic plans. Finally, you’ll work with your CEO to execute on those plans.

When you join a company’s board, you assume very important responsibilities. The primary role of the board involves governance, oversight, and evaluation of the chief executive’s performance. Additional responsibilities may involve strategic planning, fundraising, building strategic partnerships, etc.

Every director has three important obligations to keep in mind:

  • Duty of Care: directors must exercise reasonable care in their governance role.
  • Duty of Loyalty: directors must put the company’s interests ahead of their own.
  • Duty of Obedience: remain faithful and supportive of the company’s mission.

Align activities to your mission

One of the biggest responsibilities you will have is to ensure that the company’s activities are aligned with its mission. An unfocused organization is vulnerable to competition, unfavorable market conditions, and shifting political winds.

When it comes to alignment, strategic planning is incredibly important. For young or small organizations, it can be tempting to chase every shiny new thing that comes along. The board’s job is to evaluate each shiny thing, and ask “does pursuing this align with our mission?”

Boards need to be able to have frank, open discussions—with emotion removed from the equation. Additionally, boards need to make decisions based on data, not anecdotes. How can you decide what to focus on, if you’re not looking at performance or financial metrics?

Use data to drive decisions

I serve on the board of a nonprofit called Narcolepsy Network. Every October, we hold a conference in a new city. The conference rotates between six regions of the country. In previous years, the decision on next year’s city was controlled by a single director, using an ad-hoc approach divorced from any sort of discussion or analysis.

I am happy to say that this is no longer the case. I initiated an exhaustive, data-driven approach to conference location planning with a small team of directors. This exercise culminated in a small circuit of cities that the organization will rotate between. How did we achieve this? We analyzed more than 15 different metrics, including the following key ones:

  • Past performance of a location
  • Amount of people within a 200-mile driving radius
  • Airport Rank and Reliability
  • Number of Hotels and Average Cost
  • Quality of Life (weather, walk score, transit score)

We created a simple formula to score each city, and narrowed them down using the data we had gathered. The resulting circuit puts 40% of the U.S. population within driving distance of a conference location, with costs that fit within our budget and align with the expectations of our attendees.

We’re excited to see how this circuit performs in the coming years, and have selected a few different metrics as measures of success (conference attendance, post-event survey scores, etc). We’ll incorporate data from our surveys into our learnings, and continue iterating on our conference model.

Influence others to achieve buy-in

It’s one thing to develop a strategic plan, and it’s another thing entirely to persuade people of its merit. How do you influence your fellow directors and the chief executive to agree to your plan? You do this by being prepared, confident, and persuading each stakeholder one-on-one.

For starters, you need to come prepared with data. A well-laid plan is useless if you don’t have numbers to back it up. Anticipate the questions that you’ll encounter, and be prepared to defend your pitch with facts—not emotions, gut feelings, or anecdotes.

You need to be confident in your pitch. Confidence comes from preparation, and understanding the motivations of your fellow directors / chief executive. It helps to know the history of the organization—its strengths, weaknesses, failures, and successes. The more information you can arm yourself with, the more confident you’ll feel when you make your case.

You need to lay out logical, persuasive arguments in your one-on-one conversations with each stakeholder. Discussing the plan on an individual basis gives the other person an opportunity to voice their concerns, shows that person that you value their input, and will help fine-tune your pitch for the next stakeholder.

When you bring everyone together for a vote, you’ll already know the outcome. Your preparation, confidence, and persuasive arguments will have won over every director and the chief executive. The ensuring vote will be merely a formality.

Promote a measurable impact

One of the biggest challenges my organization faces is a general lack of awareness about narcolepsy. According to a recent study, 83% of Americans have heard of narcolepsy, but don’t know anything about it. This has created an environment where patients go 10—15 years between onset of symptoms and diagnosis, and only about 25% are ever even diagnosed.

There is a huge opportunity here. I believe we can improve these numbers significantly by turning as many patients as we can into advocates. Here is the argument I laid out to each individual director:

Our organization can have a measurable impact on improving these numbers, by expanding our youth advocacy program to include as many adults as possible. People connect with stories, and that’s what advocates do best—tell compelling stories. Our goal will be to bring time to diagnosis down to 5 years, with 50% of patients diagnosed. After speaking with the chair of our program, it is clear that we will need to hire additional staff to make this happen. What do you think?

By pitching this to each stakeholder on an individual basis, I was able to sound out their feelings on the idea, address any concerns they had, and refine my pitch for the next person. The effort culminated in a robust discussion at our annual in-person meeting, and a strategic plan that will unfold over the next few years.

Execute on your strategic plans

As a board director, you’ve ensured the programs, products, or services provided by your company align with its mission. You’ve developed strategic plans around these activities, and influenced your team to pursue them. The final step is getting your team to execute on these initiatives.

Make sure you set your chief executive up for success, by ensuring they have the resources needed to get the job done. As a director, you may have connections to potential partners and vendors—use your network to augment the capabilities of your organization and unlock strategic partnerships.

Pursue your highest-leverage activities

My board at Narcolepsy Network is currently a working board, and it is my intent to transition us to a strategic board within the next 3 years. Our directors currently take on responsibilities that are usually reserved for employees. The only way to become a strategic board is by hiring more staff.

In order to hire more staff, we have to raise more unrestricted funding. In the past two years, I have initiated two concurrent efforts to make this happen:

  1. A new tiered membership model, designed to cover 100% of operating costs.
  2. Joining the TCS New York City Marathon as an official charity partner.

The new model has resulted in an initial drop in membership numbers (which we expected), while at the same time resulting in higher revenue. We’ll continue to tweak this model, with the ultimate goal of having membership cover all operating costs.

The marathon had an immediate impact in 2018, allowing us to hire our second full-time employee. In 2019, we raised 60% more money. In total, the marathon has brought in over $100,000 in unrestricted funds. This year’s fundraising will enable us to hire a third full-time employee and revamp our brand / website. We have our fundraising sights set even higher for 2020.

When you join a Board of Directors, you’ll learn to align, influence, and execute on strategic plans. You’ll improve your business, communication, and leadership skills. Above all else, your efforts will have an impact on the company’s bottom line, and make a difference in people’s lives. So get out there and make it happen!

Keith Harper is a creative director in New York City looking for his next endeavor. He’s served as creative lead at 3 startups that have been acquired, and is President of a national mission–driven organization’s board of directors. You can view his work at