Thinking of Joining a Board? (Read This First)

Let’s begin with the disclaimer my attorney demanded after nearly fainting from an earlier draft: “All statements made here are hypothetical, and in no way reference the appointments, elections, or involvements of your naughty author on any corporate, government, or academic boards. This is a made-up work designed to incite social media collisions. If you are a squeamish board secretary, then please look away.”

Now that the legalese is covered, I’ll share the basic thesis of my essay, which is this: Before you join any serious board, you should first determine whether you have the right personality to put up with the slow and tedious process of governance. I am not one of these people – and I’ve either quit or allowed my seat to elapse from every decent board I’ve ever been invited to join. Below I will explain why – and hopefully help you avoid my mistakes.

To start: Many executives seem to excel at board work – or at least, it looks that way. They glide so smoothly into meetings, inject safe and friendly questions at just the right time, and prompt the delighted chairperson to cast over that occasional knowing-glance to confirm that the board member is just so appreciated. It’s an amazing thing to watch – and I have no idea how they do it. If you are one of these people, you have my jealous admiration.

Surprisingly – at least to me, many of these successful board members are security executives. My good friend Chenxi Wang from Rain Capital recently penned an excellent Forbes article about how boards are benefiting from the participation of present or former CISOs. From her narrative, the transition from senior management team to corporate board looks as natural as a Veep running for President: More of the same, but just at a higher level.

But beware: There are executives like me who do not excel at board work. They do not glide smoothly into meetings, and they tend to inject unsafe questions at the worst possible time. They frequently make the room cringe as they jab at fancy consultants during presentations. And they never get warm-and-fuzzy glances from anyone. It’s a terrible thing to experience, and if you are one of these types, then you should avoid boards – hence this article.

I offer below a little self-test that you can use to determine your suitability for board work. I should preface my remarks, however, with this point: My focus here is on paid board positions with fiduciary responsibility – where you wear a suit to meetings and get your picture in the annual report. I am not talking about unpaid tech start-up boards where frisbees are tossed around during lively debates. Got it? OK – let me explain the self-test.

During many years of direct and indirect involvement with boards on both sides of the briefing podium, I’ve had a front row seat to observe and learn the types of personality traits that seem well-suited to governance, as well as ones that do not. I’ve codified my observations into a three-question test and associated rubric that are designed to expose these traits. None of this is based on empirical or collected data: It’s all from my head.

But recognize that my experience is vast: In additional to personal elections and paid appointments on a variety of corporate, government, academic, technology, and even community boards – I’ll bet I lead the league in invited presentations to boards on cyber security. I even tag-teamed a board presentation once with Bob Mueller, just months before he became Bob Mueller. So, rest assured that I’m not just pulling this from Google.

I also fully understand the scope, focus, and purpose of the board member. I’ve sat through the training, read the workbook materials, and gone to the conference sessions. I know that the board director’s purpose is to ensure the organization’s prosperity by collectively directing the company’s affairs, whilst meeting the appropriate interest of its shareholders and stakeholders. (OK – I got that definition from Google, and who still says whilst?)

So, take a few minutes and read the questions below. If you find that you answer yes to all three, then please find something else to do in your retirement. Volunteer at your church (stay off their board, though), or take the grandkids fishing, or whatever. But if your answers below suggest the kind of restless energy that made me a total crap choice for board work, then beware if you get that tempting call to serve. Here are the questions:

Self-Test Question 1: Does your brain explode if a small, but incorrect detail goes unmentioned?

It has been my observation that good board members (and again – I am not one), have the ability to just let some things go. Most board meetings are long, especially those two-day retreats. So, when some detail is wrong, a good board member knows that pointing this out is often just not worth the trouble. I have no idea how they do this, and if you think you can do it – then you might just be a good board prospect.

Here’s a hypothetical example (that I made up): Suppose that (hypothetically) you were in a board meeting where a paid consultant was displaying your customer satisfaction scores. An unlabeled line is shown on the screen with positive slope, so one guesses that this must be good. But it gets better: Another unlabeled line then pops up just a micron below the other one, that is purported to show the inferior average of your top ten loser competitors.

So, tell me – dear reader: What would be your response? Any data analyst knows that if the average of your top ten competitors produces a line just under your own, then it is likely that you are not first, but sixth (think about it for a minute). If this just doesn’t seem all that important to you, and you can just let it go, then this is a good sign of board-worthiness. I can tell you that I cannot let such things go – and this drives chairpersons to drink.

Self-Test Question 2: Do you go nuts when something that should take a day to complete actually takes a year?

It has been my observation that good board members have the ability to relax and not worry about whether milestones are being reached with any level of urgency. Meetings usually happen monthly, so there is a good chance that some board issue left hanging during one session will sit for at least thirty days before the next little zot of progress. They might glide forward slightly faster in a committee, but you get the idea.

Here’s another hypothetical example: Suppose that you were in a board meeting where it was suggested that greater transparency was needed to gauge employee satisfaction and that reviews were needed about work-life quality. Suppose further that the decision was made to create a committee (ouch) to look into the matter – which is estimated to require a couple of months of work. Add the image of board members nodding at this reasonable suggestion.

Now – if you are like me, smoke pours from your ears at such a thing, and you interrupt the discussion to suggest that everyone just hop onto Glassdoor with their iPhones (“Hop onto what?” the chairperson might growl). Imagine the fun when everyone sees instantaneouslythat your organization averages two stars out of five. Such live derailing might sound responsible to you, but board secretaries gulp down packs of Tums when it happens.

Self-Test Question 3: Are you willing to trust management based on a highly curated view?

It has been my observation that good board members have the innate ability to be calmly satisfied with those sterile, curated spreadsheets and PowerPoints that telephone-tag their way from the worker to the boardroom. And these directors know full well that these charts were pruned carefully to tell a story, and that unless something truly extraordinary is occurring, the story will be a damn good one.

Here’s their secret: They are willing to trust management. When asked about the stream of curated stuff, they will laugh and tell you that management is capable, and that it is the role of the board to support their success. This comes with a nice side-benefit: Good board members never read prepared materials in advance. This is a newbie mistake (guilty!) and one learns quickly to never enter the boardroom with yellow stickies on one’s binder.

Look – I could never extend this level of trust to any management team, because I do cyber security for a living. Heck, I don’t even trust my mother (with computers, I mean), so there is just no way that I’m willing to grin and bear all the curated stuff, under the presumption that management has everything under control. I just cannot do this – but if you can, then perhaps you can slide into a director role at some point in your career.

I feel obliged to reiterate my legal claim: The above comments are not intended to resemble my direct personal experiences, but are designed instead to paint a broad picture. And yes – I can already see the primary comment template that will be posted in response to my article: “Every board is different,” the poster will post, “and our board does not function this way.” If this is true, then congratulations. But recognize that you are an anomaly.

I also expect to read commentary that restless people like me should suck it up and remain on boards. “The problem with corporate governance,” some will post, “is that people like you don’t remain on boards where you can hold management to task.” Well – I plead guilty to this one, and believe me – I have tried. So, yes – if you like running head first into concrete walls, then ignore my advice and go sign the fiduciary paperwork.

A final comment I expect to read is most uncomfortable: “I am a board member,” some will write, “and I take offense to your snarky essay. I work closely with management and try to provide sound advice on governance and strategy.” To this post, I offer this: If you enjoy board work, then I suspect you possess the calm, relaxed, and trusting personality that some of us were not born with. Thank you for your service – and keep up the good work.

Here’s the bottom line: If you answered yes to my three questions, then I really, really, (really) recommend that you pause before accepting a board appointment: Based on my experience (also known as getting old), you are probably not cut out for it. Oh – and every board secretary in the world should send over a thank-you card, because my advice will shorten their tedious meetings and keep the chairperson beaming. Happy Board Work.

As always let me know what you think (in a non-curated manner, please).