Serving on a board, whether a commercial or charitable organisation, can be one of the most rewarding activities a person can undertake. However, there are pitfalls. Here are five common mistakes that many people make when joining a Board of Directors for the forest time. These mistakes can be costly to the Board member and to the organisation.

i/ Failure to understand all of the functions of the Board.
Some first-time Board members have a romantic view of what it means to serve on a Board, perhaps thinking that it is all about approving requests from the organisation for ideas or attending fundraising events. Boards of Directors have a number of responsibilities. They are responsible for making sure the organisation is financially sound, in compliance with regulations, that the chief executive is accountable and performing, that a strategic plan is in place and meeting milestones, and that Board meetings are run effectively and efficiently. The work can be tedious, and if Board members drop the ball, the entire organisation can fall prey to scandals or financial ruin. It is important that Board members are educated about all of their responsibilities, and have the skills to contribute to the overall functioning of the Board.

ii/ Joining for status and not carrying one’s weight.
Non-executive directors are generally expected to contribute time, skills, contacts and/or money. Some people join Boards specifically to pad their curriculum vitae or market their business. While this might be an outcome of serving on a Board, NEDs should join a Board only if they are willing to contribute and have an impact. Before taking up their responsibilities they should be clear about what is expected of them – and the organisation should be up front and clear in setting expectations.

iii/ Overstepping bounds.
Board members, especially NEDs, are stewards of the organisation, not managers. They should not break the chain of command and talk to employees without express permission from the executive director. Similarly, a Board member should never speak to the media without express permission from the organisation.

iv/ Jumping right in with answers before taking time to listen and learn.
Most NEDs already have a track record of achievement in their careers and it is natural for them to come with experience and answers. However, all organisations have their own history and culture which new Board members need to take time to listen and learn about before jumping in with what might seem to be obvious answers. Doing otherwise risks alienating fellow Board members who have been with the organisation for a longer time.

v/ Poor collaboration and teamwork skills.
Boards of Directors are made up of a number of different stakeholders and they are often politically charged, sensitive groups. It takes collaboration skills and savvy to communicate ideas and influence others on a Board. Ramming ideas through is not the way to get things done, although some strong-willed executives forget that this is the case and can offend other members of the Board. Balance results and relationships when working with fellow Board members; think of your tenure on the Board as a marathon and not a sprint.

I hope these comments will help you through the first few meetings making them both constructive and enjoyable. Of course there is a lot more to a Board and how it leads a company, not least being regulation and governance issues. Call me of you want to talk through your situation in more detail or if a copy of my Board assessment will be helpful.

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