What it Takes to Be on the Board

April 22, 2010 · by Roger Swanson

Most architects have not had the kind of business experience required to serve on a board of directors. There are some requisite characteristics that can be learned.

If your firm is like most, it is governed by a board of directors composed mostly if not entirely of principals -- that is, employees of the firm. It is a good idea to have some board members from outside the firm, but even if you do, the board members who are also principals pose unique challenges to the group.

Most architects have not had this kind of business experience before, and those who will be named to a board post will find themselves wearing multiple hats they are not used to wearing. They will be serving a new strategic governance role in addition to being the employee they have been and will continue to be.

Some principals will be interested in having a board role, and some will need to be moved into one as a part of their ascendency to firm leadership whether they have an interest or not. It is instructive to begin early in educating these key people about what attributes are necessary to make a good board member. The following are some of the requisite characteristics. Good board members will be able to do almost all of these things well.

Think strategically. Board guidance of an organization is not about management: It is about vision and leadership. And while there are many characteristics that define these two terms, the most important one is the ability to engage in strategic thinking. On the shelves of business literature, there are more books about strategy than any other topic. This is what boards do, so board member must continually work on being more strategic.

Avoid operational management.
Board members need a thorough understanding of oversight as opposed to management. This is particularly difficult for internal members because of the multiple hat problem. A board provides oversight. It does not manage. If there are too many operational people on the board, it will turn into little more than a management committee. The board needs to avoid natural tendencies to second-guess and micro-manage the efforts of others who report to the board. It needs to put the right people in place to do the day-to-day jobs; allow those individuals, groups, and committees the freedom and authority to operate as they need to do their jobs; and provide appropriate assessment. Finally, action should be taken as necessary to change the performance of individuals and groups or to change the performers, but second-guessing their efforts is not allowed.

Transcend personal and territorial issues. A common obstacle to an effective board is when it is made up of members who cannot leave their other hats behind when they enter the board room. A member should not be on the board to get what he or she wants for a project, practice area, or corner of the world. You cannot imagine how hard this is until you have tried it.

Remain focused. Most firms lack adequate forums to discuss all the crucial issues among the stakeholders thoroughly; consequently, there is a tendency for board meetings to digress from their purpose of setting the firm’s course to being a forum to air feelings. This should be avoided by having all the other forums in place. When members enter the board room, they must be able to focus on setting the course and that only.

Be decisive. A board member must know how to assess information, take advice and counsel, and in short order make the best decision possible with the available information, using good judgment and conscience as a guide. Board members cannot afford to fall into analysis paralysis; stall for more information; suffer from advisor dependency; freeze when a decision puts them between a rock and a hard place; or become incapacitated because a particular decision is going to upset some colleagues. Most decisions are made in that nano-crack between a rock and hard place, and it is an excruciatingly uncomfortable and lonely place to be. The ability to do this is crucial to being a good board member.

Embrace responsible risk. Board members must be able and willing to take risks in the best interest of the organization. Nothing risked, nothing gained is definitely an accurate mantra in business. The art is in learning how to do this responsibly.

Be not afraid of unpopularity. Board members will make decisions for the company using their own judgment and conscience, believing their decisions to be in the best interest of the firm. Everyone will not see it the same way a board member does every time.

Admit mistakes. This applies to all walks of life but is especially important the more responsibility you carry. You will make mistakes. When it happens, admit the mistake, reanalyze the information, make a new decision, communicate, and move on. You learn more from one mistake than you do from doing 100 things right.

Be a uniter, not a divider. The board needs to demonstrate to those inside and outside the firm the strength and unity of the organization, not its faults and divisions. Therefore, board members must be uniters. Skills of diplomacy and at moderating differences are very important, as is the ability to see other peoples’ views and the willingness to take a change of mind on subjects about which compelling cases have been made that may differ from their natural inclinations or instincts.

Roger Swanson is the chairman and chief executive officer of Anshen + Allen Architects, a firm at which he has spent the greater part of his career. Swanson earned his Master of Architecture degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

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