board development,  governance

The Five Attributes of High Performing Boards


Florence, ready to present at a Board Orientation session for the Kentucky School Boards Association in 2021.

What are organizations looking for from their board members? Sometimes, even the CEO doesn't really know what to do with their board members once they have them. A High Impact Board knows that its job is to determine the WHY of the organization and leave the HOW  to the staff. They do that by setting policy and then holding staff accountable for performance.

When asked to serve on a board of directors, the first question you should ask yourself is this: What is it about the organization’s purpose that excites me? Does it appeal to your passions, your sense of duty, your interests?  If the answer is yes, then you have arrived at the right place on your journey of service. If the answer is no, now is a good time to move on.

In my experience managing the board functions for three different organizations and serving on the boards of another dozen nonprofits, I have found that there are five key attributes that must exist if you want a high-impact board.

1 Commitment to the mission

Your board members, collectively and individually, must be committed to the purpose and mission of the organization. Your recruitment practices should be crystal clear on that point. And when asked to serve on a board, potential board members must ask themselves if they can truly support the mission of the organizaiton. If not, saying no is the kindest response. All members must be able to support the mission in board meetings and in the community. Otherwise, they are doing your organization a disservice and should consider whether this board seat is the right match for them.

2 Diversity of Thought

A diverse board, quite frankly, makes better decisions. I don’t simply refer to ethnic diversity here, but age, gender, education, income, geography, experience, and more. Some of the best decisions that I have witnessed a board make have been because board members shared opinions from different perspectives. And the very best was when a board member who had participated in one of our programs told of her experience as she voiced her opinion. Powerful!

3 Specific skills

Organizations that recruit members with a variety of skills and experiences are more typically higher performing. Accounting, Legal, Marketing, Finance, Risk Management, & Information Technology are some of the more common ones. But think about industries, too -  Manufacturing, Retail, Government, Education, Hospitality.

4 Willingness to work

You don’t just want a name - you want your board members to work for your organization. You want them to participate on committees; provide advice and counsel to the members and CEO; and certainly come to meetings well prepared.

5 Influence

Board members should be prepared to help connect the organization to investors, potential board members, and influencers that can support the mission.

I'll add a sixth here, too. Philanthropic Mindset. If your board members are not prepared to contribute to the organization according to their means, then they probably aren't all that committed to the work you do.  And if they are members with influence, they should be ready to ask those in their network to support the cause. Many organizations do not rely on board members for financial support, but for those which do, 100% giving should be the baseline. And that expectation should be made clear from the outset so there are no surprises when 'the ask' comes.

Not all board members will - and perhaps even should - have all of these five (or six) characteristics. Commitment to the mission is key, but you can fudge on at least some of the others if - as a body - your board is balanced. If you have board members who represent your target population, for example, those members may or may not have the type of influence a Board member who is the CEO of a local company may have. The key  is to have a well-balanced board that is thoughtful, prepares for meetings, is willing to pitch in where needed, and uses their talents for the benefit of the organization. That almost always results in a high performing board that truly makes a difference for the organization.

That's it.

Well, it's not really that simple, but it is a good start to creating a high performing board. In future posts, we'll talk about some of the other attributes of high performing boards such as policy setting, fiduciary duties, meeting design, strategy, and succession. But for today, let's focus on securing members with these five attributes for your board.

It may not be all smooth sailing after that, but the waters will certainly be calmer.