As a non-executive board director, I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to do this role in today’s environment. With a dramatically different economic climate in which organizations are now operating, as well as increased scrutiny by stakeholders and governments alike, the nature of what it takes to be a responsible board member, too, has changed. Simply looking over the shoulder of the executive team and offering an occasional word of wisdom or direction is not sufficient. Non-executive board directors today need to be activists to ensure the organizations they serve do not simply survive but thrive. And, the boards on which they serve should demand no less.
The best organizations of all sizes, in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, are looking for active, engaged, independent and interested board members, and they encourage a climate in which having those people on the board can bear fruit. These boardrooms create environments where members are comfortable, and indeed required, to ask hard questions, challenge the status quo and step up to assist in areas where they can. An independent board director should bring independence in word and deed and a fresh perspective to the organization.
Activist board directors engage and reach out. They ask questions inside and outside the organization and seek advice from fellow board members, senior executives, staff and investors and thus gain a fuller understanding of the challenges their organization confronts, as well as the resources and capabilities it has (and needs) to master them. In my experience, this implies a number of different strategies.
First, and especially at the point when joining as a new director, I have found it incredibly useful to reach out to existing directors and get to know them beyond their bios and outside of the structured board setting. Getting to know my fellow executive and non-executive board directors helps to build board cohesion and can make a big difference in avoiding confusion in the heat of the boardroom discussions. Boards function better when the people around the table know and trust one another and feel that they are moving in the same direction.