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Printed 2014/07/26 01:32PM

Do You Have One of “the Three W’s” to Sit on a Board of Directors?

2012/08/13

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat – I’m not typing “Board of Directors” repeatedly throughout this blog post.  It’s just too much typing.  BoD will have to do.  Live with it.

Perhaps, you’ve been paying attention to the PASS Twitter feed, read the newsletters, or otherwise stay abreast of happenings within PASS.  If you haven’t, here’s a news alert – it’s time for a new round of the PASS leadership cycle.  And since this is the season of PASS nominations, I thought it’d be an appropriate time to share some of my lessons learned about effective BoDs.

Having spent over a decade sitting on various BoD’s, I can testify that the most effective directors are those that bring at least one of the three W’s to the table.  (I learned the three W’s from a former executive director of PASS, Jon Lindberg).  Note that the three W’s are not characteristics or traits.  They are behaviors, that is, observable sets of activities.  The keywords in the previous sentence are observable and activities.  You might have every intention in the world of doing the three W’s.  But if other people on the BoD cannot observe that you are performing the actions, they don’t exist.  The three W behaviors are Wealth, Work, and Wisdom.  They’re major behaviors in my leadership ethos, called servant leadership.  (I’ll talk about servant leadership in another post at some time).

Let’s talk about the three W’s in detail:

Wealth

This is simple and direct.  Some directors come to the boardroom with a checkbook and they’re willing to use it to further the goals of the organization.  Because they fund strategic initiatives of the organization in cash or in-kind, they literally change the reality for the organization.  Directors with this W remove barriers and constraints that would otherwise end many discussions and initiatives before they got off the ground due to lack of resources.

However, directors with wealth are usually their as a part of their job.  In other words, their employer has a strategic reason for supporting the success of the organization.  Therefore, directors with wealth often seek to ensure that the organization is tracking against certain high-level goals that coincide with the goals of their employer.  This is not to say that such directors have ulterior motives.  They are typically very ethical and insightful members of a given BoD. But this perspective also means that a director with wealth may be interested in activities or metrics which other directors have considered.  After all, if you were to pony up big dollars for a new initiative on your child’s  soccer team (say, new training equipment) you’d also want to ensure that money was spent to greatest effect.

Note that wealth doesn’t always mean cash.  It can mean many other things – your presence is a form of value.  (Many times, directors come to BoD meetings and proceed to work on their email.  That’s a major breach of sharing your wealth of knowledge).  Here’s a more concrete example.  Back in the early 2000’s, around 2003, PASS received a significant amount of in-kind support from Compaq Corporation at the encouragement of then Microsoft liaison and board member Ryan Trout.  (In-kind support, by the way, is support that has a cash value, but is an action or activity offered instead of actual cash).  In effect, Compaq conducted a major direct mail campaign to their sizeable SQL Server user base to help drive attendance at the PASS Summit and to encourage interest in both the international organization and local user groups.  This contribution marked a major turning point for PASS both in terms of high-level vendor support and in visibility to the SQL Server user community.

 Axiom: The golden rule, for directors with wealth, is “he who has the gold makes the rules” with all the positive and negative connotations that holds.

Work

There’s no getting around the fact that the directors who are most willing to invest personal time and energy are the most effective.  (And I mean the term “effective” in the most literal sense of “having a measurable effect on the enterprise”).  In a typical strategically-oriented board, the extent of work is usually to remain current on all important reading material, to strive to be aware of shareholder issues and concerns, and to formulate opinions on important strategies for the organization to consider or implement as a form of guidance for the CEO and COO.

In a portfolio-oriented board, such as the structure used by PASS and many other large IT professional associations (including most of the other major database BoD’s such as IOUG, IDUG, ISUG, ITUG, and Share), directors not only have the burden of the strategic director, but also act as the head of a specific function of the organization.  For example, in a portfolio-oriented BoD, a single director might be responsible for growing and guiding the local chapters of the association (the Chapter Portfolio), another might be responsible for driving value back to members (the Membership Portfolio), a third might be responsible for the selection and implementation of the content delivered at major events (the Program Portfolio), and so on.  There is no doubt that some directors are much more effective than others at managing a portfolio and leading a group of volunteers within that portfolio.

While a full discussion of the best practices that make some directors really effective at this second W could fill a couple additional posts, I’ll put a few quick hallmarks here in case you’re curious:

Priorities

Smart directors set their sights on a very short list of goals that follow the SMART standard.  And by “short list”, I mean a list with no more than three goals.  The goals are achievable and, usually, not terribly expensive nor complex to implement. If one of their top goals turns out to be much more expensive or complex to get rolling, then they move on to their next most important goal that is easily achievable.

 Axiom: It is better to make small, measurable gains than to set big goals that never get accomplished.

Alignment

Smart directors make sure that the goals they’re working to achieve complement the overall strategy of the organization.  This alignment provides a strong incentive for other members of the BoD to back their proposals and to act as allies in the event that a board vote is needed to settle the way resources will be directed or whether a proposed goal is accepted by the board as a new policy or program.  Alignment of goals with the top-level strategy of the organization also means that successor directors will have a much easier time continuing where the original board member left off because the work simply makes sense. Plus, when a director’s goals seem unusual or very different than other goals of the organization, organizational resistance is sure to come in to play.

Axiom: Unless there’s an emergency, it is better to couch visionary change within the overall strategy of the organization than it is to introduce changes that represent a major shift in long-standing culture, priorities, or processes.

Focus

Directors who have a short list of goals are also much more successful when they devote their energies to …, oh wait a sec, gotta check email.  Just kidding.  But I hope you get the idea.

I’ve seen a lot of brilliant individual directors who, upon prioritizing their work, spent enormous amounts of time and energy working on other people’s problems, working on their own issues at the wrong level, or talking about an issue way after its major parameters have been decided.  I’m not saying stop helping others or stop discussions.  But I am saying that a portfolio director must remember that the success of their team is their success.  Many IT professionals are used to being individual contributors and so they feel that if they’re busy and working hard, it must be good, right?  No.  If the director isn’t working to achieve the goals of their portfolio, they’re basically not working at all.  Here are some common traps that damage focus:

A common way IT pros on a BoD lose their focus is to get into the details of a new program or process.  For example, say that PASS wanted to introduce a cool new feature on their website.  An unfocused director would immediately begin to start designing the system in their mind – “We’ll use Active Directory to authenticate new users and then they’ll connect to the services using that cool REST-ful technology I’ve wanted to try.  And maybe we could use SSIS packages to…” You get the picture.  The BoD hasn’t even fully fleshed out the business plan for the new program and yet this director is off and running after the specific technological solution to the problem.  The problem that is not yet fully mapped out and understood.  Remember, directors are supposed to assess and manage the business value of any given process or new organization program, not sling code.  By focusing on the intimate details of the technology first, the director short-changes the business value of the initiative.  It’s like the programmer who starts writing code before any requirements are understood or documented.  I’ve seen directors invest huge amounts of time into initiative which, in the broad analysis, were only half-baked and not worth pursuing.  The focus must for a director, first and foremost, be about business value.  (As a side-bar to this line of thought, many directors are the only person who can make certain important decisions.  If that person is encumbered with relatively routine but demanding work, they actually shortchange the organization of their true value.  If the VP of Finance is spending a lot of time working on a technology problem, they’re not just working on technology – they’re also NOT WORKING on financial matters).

 Another common mistake that IT pros make when managing a portfolio is failing at delegation.  IT pros, as I mentioned earlier, are usually most successful when they’re a strong individual contributor.  They’re used to being judged on their own technical skill.  They’re not used to being judged on the success of a team.  Consequently, inexperienced directors frequently under-delegate and/or under-communicate which leaves volunteers feeling unwanted and unimportant.  In the same vein, directors may act rudely to their committee members or other volunteers, or may simply treat them like employees –definitely not the way to treat a volunteer.  This behavior is like torching your own support network.  Volunteers can quickly become demoralized, or even quit, when they feel unproductive or unwanted.

 Axiom: As a smart director of a portfolio, it is better to focus on business outcomes and the success of the team than it is to perform the detailed work yourself.

 Wisdom

Dictionary.com tells me that wisdom is “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action”.  Money cannot buy wisdom.  It can only be earned through many years of manifold experiences.  Some young people are wise and insightful, but frankly it’s usually the grey-headed types who’ve usually lived through enough dumb decisions to recognize when a pattern in a social situation or set of human behaviors is being repeated.  A great example of wisdom on the PASS board comes from the two CA representatives who sit on the board, Neil Buchwalter and Rick Bolesta.  In addition to serving on the PASS board for perhaps longer than any other sitting board member, they’ve also both sat on other boards before and concurrently with the PASS board.  Their stability, deep history, and analysis of the interplay between people (or groups of people) are extremely important to the successful workings of the board.

You might thing, based on what I’ve said described about wisdom, that a wise director is prone to pontificate and engage in long-winded discourse.  Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience.  The typical wise director tends to be brief, interjecting comments and thoughts of great weight and importance.  What they say is usually worth careful consideration.  Conversely, directors who spend a lot of time talking are often the least worth listening to.  Many long-winded directors often use discussion to figure out what it is they really think about a given situation.  Wise directors already know what they think and, when the speak, produce fully formed thoughts and arguments in a given situation.

In some cases, a BoD can help build institutional wisdom through diversity.  As I mentioned earlier, wisdom is earned through experiences (usually bad experiences).  When the members of a governing body like a BoD are young and/or inexperienced, they can supplement their breadth of experiences by selecting members of a variety of background, ethnicities, nationalities, ideologies, orientation, etc.  This broaden of perspective raises the quality of dialog, helps identify problems and issues in policy discussion, and helps to foresee major obstacles on the horizon.

Axiom: Wisdom and insight are crucial in building a base of institutional knowledge, context for key decisions, and insight into the highest-probability for success in socially complex situations.

If you’re involved in a governing body of some kind or are considering volunteering with PASS (or any other BoD for a professional association), do a little introspection.  Do you possess one or more of the three W’s?  Or do you have big dreams or a burning ember of ambition?  What do you need to learn to equip yourself with one of the W’s?

Let me know what you think!

-Kevin


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