Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Joining, serving on and leading a board of directors – 7: boards committees

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on September 3, 2011

This is my seventh installment in a series on boards of directors as viewed from the perspective of serving on one as a career development stage (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2.) and my goal here is to discuss participation in board functions. Boards of directors, in general, meet as a group at least some set number of times a year to discuss issues that would require general participation. Increasingly, board participation can and does take place online too, and by email, Skype phone conferences and video Skype, Instant Messaging, web conferences and a range of other cyber-alternatives. And this can in fact make all of the difference for a board’s busier members, enabling them to participate as active members where otherwise, their schedules would not permit that.

But even when online and other options are employed to make active board participation feasible for more members, member time and energy can still be stretched to capacity even before board activities are added in. And that is an area where board committees enter this picture.

• Boards set up committees of members to do the preliminary work on issues that require particular expertise. So for example, if a business is considering a move in its strategic planning and prioritization that would call for board buy-in involving development into a foreign market, board members with general international business experience or experience with the business climate and culture of that potential market might work together as a committee to develop a report that they would share with the entire board, outlining their thoughts and conclusions and enough supporting evidence to meet general board membership needs.
• A committee might be set up to do the initial screening of board or executive suite candidates too, and particularly where confidential information concerning these people would have to be reviewed. That can be important as a due diligence measure for the board as a whole and for the company or organization it is board to, as well as for the specific candidates involved.
• Basically, committees are set up and run within boards to help limit the flood of information that general board members have to deal with, to what they all actually have to see and decide upon, with required but supporting work shared and so no one member has to be involved for all details of absolutely everything.

Sometimes board committees are of brief tenure, simply set up to help manage and coordinate board review and oversight of very time-limited issues. Sometimes they are of longer term duration and they can even be more or less permanent standing committees. A committee that is comprised of members with specific financial expertise might, for example, be responsible for reviewing and reporting on specific specialized areas of the organization’s annual financial reports.

• Know how a board you might serve on is organized, and who does what on it.
• Know what crucial information you will see and where you might primarily be provided with pre-developed analyses based on board committee or other sources.
• Know what your rights are for requesting the details, or to sit in on or join a board committee, and perhaps most importantly any standing committees that would deal with recurring and ongoing issues.
• Something I have occasionally seen is the “board within a board” committee, where all real decisions are actually being made by only a few select board members. Is the board you are considering joining set up and run that way, in practice? Who is in this inner group and why?
• I have seen very large boards at nonprofits, where many members are there primarily to help fundraise and lend their names in gaining positive marketing. And a subset of board members that really is a board within the board does the actual business-side work and they are the only ones who really want to do this, at least on a steady ongoing basis. So this type of subgroup can be toxic or it can be positive, and even necessary
• The important point here is to really understand the board you serve on or are considering joining.

The next posting I am going to add to this series will discuss time commitments and focus, and both for board members and for the CEO and their executive suite. I will be discussing this at least in part in terms of the board types that I have outlined in my basic board taxonomy.

I have been posting on the general topic area of jobs and careers to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development directory. I have recently started a second, continuation page to this directory at Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2 and you will be able to find this and subsequent series on jobs and careers there.

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