The skills that enable a person to be a top-tier database professional have very little to do with being a successful member of a board of directors. So what skills are needed for a person to be successful on a board of directors for any large organization? Here are a handful of skills, in no particular order, that I’ve seen demonstrated by very successful directors from days past:
- Strategic thinking: Let’s face it – technology is detail-oriented work. No database professional can be truly effective at their job if they never get the parameters correct when calling a function, can’t remember the correct syntax for simple SQL query, or know their server only as a “DL something-er-other”. You have to know the details to be able to get your work done quickly. However, getting into the details at a board-level discussion is the exact opposite of how a director most effectively spends their time. Instead, board members need to figure out all of the elements of the big picture first. This time of assessment is predicated upon have a strong understanding of the organization’s top few strategic goals, usually no more than 3-5 goals in any given year. Every new program needs to be evaluated against those strategic goals and, many times, what might seem like a great idea turns out to conflict with the organizational goals. After a new program or idea is vetted against PASS’ strategic goals and passes the test, it needs to be fully conceptualized – sort of like a programmer’s model of a program in pseudocode or a database in an ER diagram. Once that’s done, the various elements of the big picture are handed off to either specific board members or other high-level PASS volunteers for implementation.
I’ll give you an example. One of our past directors for PASS, whenever a new program was being discussed, would immediately begin to throw out detailed solutions to the program in question. “Oh! We could code that in ASP.NET and, now that I think of it, it’d be really cool to try the new .NET framework.” People would then start to argue about what’s the right technology to use. “No, we should use C#!” Sometimes, the discussion would devolve into an argument between different technological zealots who wanted things done “the best way” – that is, the way they like it. But wait a minute! The board hadn’t even come to consensus on what features the program would include, when it would be launched, who would be accountable for its success, how it would be funded, and who would do the grunt work to complete it.
So, to me, the first characteristic of a successful director is strategic, “big picture”, thinking.
- Vision: I’ve had the pleasure to work with many directors, both elected and appointed, over the years on the PASS board. There are a lot of reasons that motivate people to put their name into the hat for a seat on the board. Some are motivated by ambition. They want to see that cool entry of “director” on their resume and the new job opportunities it might open. Some are motivated by zeal for the community. PASS enabled them to learn a lot and they want to pay it forward to future generations of SQL Server professionals. Some are high-achievers who are a little bored by their day-to-day job and would like to liven it up with new challenges that are still pertinent to their career. Yet, no matter what motivates a candidate to seek a seat on the board, I’ve noticed that those who have a vision for change they’d like to accomplish in their time on the board are those who are most likely to make a difference.
Now when I saw “a vision for change”, I don’t mean an amorphous, pie-in-the-sky ideal. I mean, literally, that these successful candidates want to do one (or more) clearly defined projects for the benefit of the SQL Server community. They have in their mind a before- and after-picture of PASS. “This is what PASS looked like before I came to the board and, thanks to me, PASS looks different in this after-picture!” By comparison, directors who have no particular vision or who have a vision that is at cross-purposes with the organization, at best, muddle along in mediocrity or, at worst, flame out and walk away from the board with hard feelings.
Here are a couple examples. First, I’ve seen many fine technologists take a seat at the director’s table over the years whose attitude could best be described as “What the heck am I doing here?!? I sure hope someone tells me what to do.” If you’re not inspired, not burning with powerful desire for change, don’t particularly want to see a particular something happen within PASS then I really need to point out that this job might not be for you. A few such board members later caught fire, but most of the board members who came in without a vision for change, unsurprisingly, accomplish little. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know when you get there. Second, we’ve had a couple board members who came to the board with a strong mission in mind targeted on altruism of some sort, like training underprivileged kids or organizing PASS members for volunteerism outside of PASS. These kinds of goals, while very worthy, need to be met outside of PASS through organizations that specialize in that kind of work. Let’s be honest, PASS has tiny budgets. And its directors have a very finite amount of time and energy for their volunteer activities. Any moneys or personal energies spent on things that don’t accomplish PASS’ strategic goals in fact decrease it’s ability to do so.
- Emotional Intelligence: Many of us went into technology because we don’t LIKE to spend all day trying to read people’s subtle clues about what they want or how they are feeling. SQL Server 2008 Enterprise Edition works just as well for you if you use harsh tones with it as if you soothingly reassure it that you’re on its side. And you can’t debug a CLR routine any faster if you use affirming body language. Unfortunately, for the technophiles out there who’d rather send an email to the person in the cube next them instead of walking three steps to have an interpersonal discussion, board work is almost 100% person-to-person. The most effective directors have been those who can tell when someone is tuning them out, chose their words in a way that holds and retains interests of their audience, and can perceive the difference between when a person is truly supporting them and when a person is merely being polite.
Believe it or not, though, I’m not saying that effective directors are always the most suave or polished. That’s not the case at all. We’ve had some very gruff, even abrasive, directors over the years. But many of them were successful all the same because they understood how to communicate their most important messages effectively and, at the same time, read the subtle and nonverbal responses of their peers on the board for support.
Here’s a worst-practice example. Immediately after getting a seat on the board many years ago, a former director spoke up in topic after topic at board meetings and calls throughout the year. By the second board meeting of the year, other board members would roll their eyes when he’d jump in. It didn’t matter to him that he was off topic – he had the floor, by gosh. It seemed that, more and more, this director was primarily speaking up in search of “pats on the back” and “you’re so smart!” sorts of positive strokes, not to actually advance the conversation. Everyone came to feel like he was wasting their time. When this director presented a proposal for a major new initiative to the board which he was sponsoring (which took several hours, by the way, about three times the length of a normal proposal), he basked in the spotlight at the podium like a rock star. Unfortunately, he failed to present a cohesive proposal and, on top of that, hadn’t vetted his ideas before hand with a single other member of the board. I sometimes wondered if he worked alone because he didn’t want anyone to share in the glory of his great ideas. His proposal, and his wider tenure on the board, fell flat because every exchange with him felt like his time on the board was all about him, instead of all about the organization.
There are lots of minor skills that help a candidate become an exceptional director. Knowing how to create and read a budget helps a lot. Having project estimating and project management skills certainly yields good fruit. Running a good meeting and helping to drive for consensus are great skills to bring to the board room. Being diplomatic and learning how to build political capital can help a director implement ideas that they favor. But, all things considered, successful directors do these three things:
- Think strategically rather than in terms of low-level details
- Have a vision for one or more changes that they want to enact during their time on the board.
- Know how to communicate interpersonally and gain the support of their colleagues on the board.
The good news about these three key skills is that, while not natural to most SQL Server professionals, they can be learned. Where to start? In my next column, I’ll point out some on-line resources which can help you learn these key skills of strategic leadership.