5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Joining a Public Board

Joining a public board presents a compelling blend of challenges and opportunities. It is an avenue for seasoned professionals to leverage their skills, experiences, and insights to steer an organization towards success. Yet, like any worthwhile venture, it's not without its learning curves. Reflecting on my experiences, here are five insights I wish were handed to me before I occupied that coveted seat.

1. The Amount of Work

I was aware that being a board member would entail a significant amount of preparation. What I hadn't grasped was the sheer depth and breadth of it. Board materials, for starters, can be dauntingly expansive. They often span more than 100 pages for a solitary quarterly meeting. However, it's not just about skimming through these documents. It's about deep diving into them, analyzing every detail, forming coherent opinions, and crafting strategic questions or suggestions.

Furthermore, the commitment isn't restricted to reading alone. The communication demands can be intense. There have been several weeks (many consecutive) when I found myself spending over eight hours a week on phone calls – discussing strategies, resolving disputes, or brainstorming new initiatives. It's a reminder that being on a public board isn't a title; it's a hands-on, deeply involved responsibility.

2. The Central Role of Committees

One's initial impression might reduce committees to mere subgroups or think-tanks within the larger board structure. However, in reality, they serve as the vital cogs in the board's machinery. Each committee has its own set of challenges and responsibilities that are pivotal to the board's overall function.

For most board members, participation in standing committees – such as compensation, nomination & governance, and audit – becomes a regular duty. Beyond these, there may be specialized committees, each focusing on areas as diverse as risk management, exploration of strategic opportunities, or the ever-evolving realm of cyber security. To be an effective board member means to understand, participate in, and sometimes lead these committees.

3. The Importance of Board Leadership

Board governance goes beyond a set of rules or protocols. It's a dynamic framework that dictates how a board operates, makes decisions, and interacts with stakeholders. One fundamental aspect that often gets debated is the dual role of a CEO – should they also be the board chair? This decision can set the tone for power dynamics, influence decision-making processes, and impact the strategic direction of the organization.

In instances where the board chair is also the lead independent director, the background, relationships, temperament and opinions of that director determine not only the agenda discussed at board meetings but also how board members engage with each other.   This also holds true for committee leadership. In summary, a board's leadership can enhance or impede board, and subsequently company, efficiency, effectiveness, and direction.

4. The Value of New Perspectives

It's a natural human instinct to feel slightly out of depth when placed in a new environment. As a new board member, I remember battling the thought of being perceived as a liability. But as time progressed, I realized that fresh perspectives are not just welcome; they're indispensable.

Seasoned board members bring a wealth of historical knowledge to the table – invaluable, without a doubt. However, new members offer a fresh set of eyes, unburdened by past decisions or legacy issues. They often spot nuances, ask questions others might not have considered, and bring in innovations that can invigorate the board's strategic outlook.

5. Judgement in a VUCA World is Key

The acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – is more than just a buzzword. It encapsulates the challenging landscape businesses navigate today. While executives handle day-to-day functional decisions, board members must offer guidance in this unpredictable environment.

Sound judgementis paramount. It's about sifting through complexities, weighing pros and cons in ambiguous scenarios, and remaining unfazed when the situation turns volatile. Experience and expertise undeniably matter, but history has countless tales of well-experienced boards going astray. In contrast, boards that exhibit sharp, insightful judgement often steer their organizations towards sustainable success.

In Closing

Being a part of a public board is a journey of continuous learning, profound commitment, and impactful decision-making. It requires a blend of patience, expertise, and the ability to adapt. While challenges are a given, the satisfaction derived from shaping an organization's trajectory and ensuring its sustained growth is immeasurable.

Written by:
Ron Mitchell
CEO, Humanity Health Inc.
Public Board Director:
Tabula Rasa Inc.
Ticker: TRHC
Committees: compensation, strategic opportunities
ON24 Inc.
Ticker: ONTF
Committees: nomination & governance