Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

April 24, 2018


Paul Zilz

Ten Traits of Effective Board Members

Have you ever played on a sports team, worked on a business team, or served on a board, where the people could not work together effectively to accomplish the goal? This can be a frustrating and challenging experience, and often it is because the people on the team are just not suited well or equipped properly to do what is expected.

If you serve on a board, you need to recruit team members who help the board govern effectively. You want board members who can help the board “steer,” not “row” the organization. You want board members who see their job as, and are proficient in, “directing and protecting” the organization, since this is what governance is all about. I suggest that recruiting and selecting board members with the following traits increases the probability of building a board team that governs effectively, increasing the likelihood that the organization will achieve what is intended to be achieved in a way that avoids unethical and imprudent actions:

  1. Passion for the organization’s mission: Why would a person want to invest time on a board if not because that person believes in the difference the organization is making in the lives of the people it serves? Any other reason is less than optimal and will play out in some manner that is neither good for the board member nor helpful for the board or organization in the long term.
  2. Servant-leadership motivation: The most effective board members don’t serve because they must lead; they lead because they must serve. Board members who are egotistical, who must be in charge, who have to always be followed will only cause disruption to the board and the organization as a whole. Only when board members want to serve the organization with humility, an open-minded inquisitiveness, and a desire to learn and gain the perspective of others, will the board govern well as a whole.
  3. Commitment to connect with those who are “invested” in the organization (“owners” for shorthand): The board is the link between the owners and the operational management. As such, the board derives its authority to govern from those owners, and it serves as the informed agent of those owners. Accordingly, as the servant-leader of those owners, it must reach out to understand what they value in terms of the results to be achieved for those who benefit from the organization’s existence. Otherwise, the board just serves as its own sounding board, potentially leading to narrow and misguided thinking.
  4. Ability to think in terms of systems and context and to see the big picture: The board is the only legitimate authority to govern, that is, to direct what results should be achieved for whom and to protect the organization from unethical and imprudent actions that endanger the organization’s ability to achieve the results. Consequently, it is imperative the board have the ability to secure and evaluate information systematically and in context, looking for the connections among disparate information that affect the ability of the organization to make the intended difference. This requires an ability to ask penetrating and insightful questions such as “why” rather than “how” types of questions. This is big picture thinking.
  5. Ability to think long term and strategically: The board must have the capacity to govern in such a way that ensures the organization is positioned strategically in its context over the long term to be able to produce the intended results for those who benefit from the organization’s service. The board must be able to take the “long view” and to understand how the organization impacts its context and how its changing context impacts the organization. The board must have the strategic foresight to explore and evaluate the impact the organization has on a changing context and how that changing context, in turn, affects the ability of the organization to continue to achieve the intended results over the long-term.
  6. Ability to assess the values underlying the actions taken in the organization and to formulate policy based on those values: In the end, a board governs most effectively by expressing in writing its clear expectations of the results to be achieved and for whom, along with clear, written expectations regarding those imprudent or unethical actions that should be avoided. Policies capture the values behind these expectations. We expect certain outcomes because we value them. Proficient board members think about the values driving policy. They are able to articulate why a specific action is imprudent, what is the underlying risk, and why it is a risk.
  7. Willingness to delegate the operational details to others: Since a board is not always present at the organization, it must be able to accountably delegate the achievement of intended results within the established boundaries of ethics and prudence. If a board member has to know and direct every detail of operations, that board member should think about serving the organization as an operational volunteer or as a staff member instead of as a board member.
  8. Ability and willingness to participate assertively in deliberation while respecting the opinions of others: This is the proverbial ability to “play nicely in the sand box.” Neither “wallflowers” nor “bullies” help the board govern effectively. The board needs its members to assertively articulate values-based and logical positions while respecting the values and logic of other members. Collectively, the board must be able to weigh various value-based policy options honestly, transparently, and respectfully if it is to design effective governing policy.
  9. Commitment not to make judgments in the absence of previously stated written criteria: Whether the board is evaluating its CEO (the sole delegate of the board, by whatever name) regarding the budget, operational planning, financial conditions, treatment of staff, or treatment of those the organization serves, in fairness the board can only hold the CEO responsible for criteria the board has already established in written policy. It is not fair to write a policy that captures a risk the board values as imprudent, and then not allow the CEO to make a reasonable interpretation of that policy. In other words, it would be unfair and unproductive for the board to write a policy, have the CEO provide a reasonable interpretation of that policy, and then subsequently evaluate the CEO on criteria that has not already been clearly expressed in writing. That is moving the boundaries on the CEO in a manner that is unfair; the CEO cannot read the minds of individual board members. If it is important enough to evaluate, then it is important enough for the board as a whole to capture in written policy.
  10. Commitment to adhere to the board’s written code of conduct and to honor board decisions: If you don’t have a written board code of conduct, write one. Then it is reasonable to expect board members to comply with the written expectations the board has for itself. Otherwise, the tendency will be for the board to turn inward on itself and to start evaluating a board member’s performance based on the criteria of the individual(s) making the evaluation, rather than being based on the collective criteria established by the board as a whole. This creates dysfunction and a lack of focus on governing.

Having board members with the above qualities increases the probability that the board will govern more effectively. How do you stack up? How does your board stack up? Remember, you are looking for people who can effectively govern, not manage, the organization! You want a high performing, effective governance team! The people for whom your organization is seeking to make a difference depend on the ability of your board to govern well. Check out the resources we provide for board member recruitment and selection at or




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