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Seizing the reins: four board members and trustees give their impressions--good, bad, and otherwise--of their first-year board experiences.

Being invited to serve on a board is quite an honor, indeed. But wouldn't it be nice to know what to expect before you start your term? Read what these four first-year board members had to say about their initial terms. But first, the facts: Serving on a board today--nonprofit, corporate, university, or otherwise--is a hefty responsibility. It's even more so for first-time board members, who may face a considerable time crunch as well as information overload. So how--or, perhaps, why--do they do it? The following vignettes from rookie board members reflect the situations they faced when coming aboard and detail how they made their inaugural years rewarding--for themselves and their organizations.

Making the Time

Board member: Kelly Mooney

Board: Experience Columbus (formerly the Greater Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Day job: President and Chief Experience Officer, Ten/Resource, Columbus, Ohio;

AS A WIFE, MOTHER OF TWO YOUNG children, author, and president of a thriving interactive agency, the demands on my time are never-ending and require constant assessment. In addition to surrounding myself with bright, talented people at work and a loving husband and supportive friends and family at home, I diligently set priorities for the day, week, month, and year. I determine how much time I'm able--and willing--to spend on activities for work and for the Experience Columbus board. I block out the time in advance and work hard to stay within the allocations.

No matter whether it's home, work, or the board, I focus on the areas where I know I can make a difference, resisting the urge to fix every problem or be outspoken about every issue. I'm not short on opinions; rather, I prefer to home in on the things that matter most and the topics on which I can make an impact.


In the case of the Experience Columbus board, I was asked to be on the marketing committee--which, given my background in marketing and design, was a natural fit. It was an exciting opportunity because the group was in the middle of an initiative that culminated in a new name, new identity, and new marketing materials that help our city stand out better from the pack. My next board activity is to help define the ideal experience for Columbus visitors. Both of these initiatives are extensions of my passion and experience and enable me to add value, while not consuming inordinate amounts of time.

Clearly, my responsibilities at work must come before my board duties. I have Fortune 500 clients to keep happy, associates to motivate, an unpredictable economy to navigate, and operations to oversee. At the same time, I believe that all of us need to give back to the communities that facilitate our success at work and at home. If we don't, we merely exist in an isolated vacuum of commerce--and that, in my mind, is inexcusable for any leader. Giving back is something that has been impressed upon me for the past nine years by our company's founder and CEO, Nancy Kramer. Now it's my turn to manage the balancing act.

The Confidence to Contribute

Board member: Judith A. Winston

Board: National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.

Day job: Partner, Winston, Withers & Associates, LLC, Washington, D.C.;

AS MY FIRST NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO (NPR) board meeting approached, I vowed to be a good listener and not speak until I had something important and relevant to say. However, I immediately began to fear that I might never speak at a meeting. Perhaps I wouldn't understand what was important or relevant in a circumstance where, as a public member of the board, unlike the elected members who were public radio station managers, I had no technical expertise or radio-programming or station-management savvy.

How could I effectively fulfill my governance and fiduciary responsibilities and help to run this organization? Could a civil rights and education law attorney, the former head of a government law office, contribute significantly to NPR on the strength of her decades-long enthusiasm as a public-radio listener?

Wait a minute, I finally had to tell myself, you did not appoint yourself to this board. You were sought out, fully vetted, interviewed, and selected. A significant group of people connected to NPR believed you had something important to offer.

My challenge was to rediscover what that something was and to fulfill that expectation as best I could. I made that discovery gradually as the board completed its ongoing review of NPR's strategic plan.

I learned that subject-matter knowledge and technical expertise are not always necessary prerequisites for responsible and effective board participation. My years as an enthusiastic listener, combined with the judgment and problem-solving skills acquired during my career, served me well as a board member and guided the views I ultimately shared and the votes I cast.


Previous NPR boards had laid out a vision and mission for National Public Radio. As a board member, I learned I had both the right and an obligation to revisit and question these vision and mission statements. Did they continue to represent what I believe public radio should be for the American public--the major constituent and intended beneficiary of its broadcasts?

Our job as board members--indeed, my job--was not to run the organization (and so I learned that I did not need to know all the intricacies of operating a public radio system; besides, I already had my day job) but to ensure that NPR management had a policy road map for effectively implementing the mission. These policies must ensure, among other things, that money raised and spent is used to advance the mission; that activities undertaken do not jeopardize the effectiveness or reputation of the organization; and that we are adhering to the legal, ethical, and fiduciary standards that govern every entity created, regulated, and sustained in part by the government and in the public interest.

That first year taught me to ask many questions; listen hard to the answers; and use my judgment to determine which policy directions would best advance the dissemination of information, culture, and ideas to listeners.

I learned the importance of distinguishing between policy making and micromanaging. And I worked hard to give management the policy room it needed to be creative and bold in making the organization work well and within the policy framework the board had constructed.

Wearing Multiple Hats

Trustee: Carl H. Lisman

Board: University of Vermont, Burlington

Day job: President, Lisman, Webster, Kirkpatrick & Leckerling, P.C., Burlington, Vermont;

THE UNIVERSITY OF VERMONT (UVM) was chartered in 1791, but it was not until 1955 that the university and the state agricultural college merged into a single institution. The unusual composition of our board of trustees is the result of that merger: nine trustees selected from the representatives of the former private institution; nine trustees elected by the state legislature; the university president; two student trustees; the governor; and three Vermonters selected by the governor. It's quite a mix.

Notwithstanding the selection process, each board trustee is subject to the general duties of care and loyalty that apply to all directors and trustees. That being said, each trustee must wear a number of hats--some more comfortably than others. I was elected as a private board member a little more than a year ago and have been negotiating the learning curve ever since.

Here's a list of some of the hats I've been wearing--while trying to keep my head from becoming too big.


* As a representative of the institution, I'm a vocal supporter of the university. I embrace its mission and newly appointed President Daniel Fogel's visionary plans. At every opportunity, I advocate for the university, whether to legislators for appropriations, current and potential donors, the university's neighbors, student candidates, or myriad others.

* But my loyalty is neither blind nor unwavering. I'm a questioner, because proper decisions are informed decisions.

* I'm a scrutinizer of details and big pictures.

* Ultimately, I'm a decider of significant policy matters.

* I do not exist in a vacuum; I'm a representative of many different constituencies. I speak for all Vermonters, because UVM is the primary university for Vermont's children.

* I'm a taxpayer and expect that state appropriations be well spent, and I'm a (modest) financial donor who appreciates the university's needs.

* I'm a neighbor and must deal with the problems of noise, youthful zeal, traffic congestion, and demands on municipal services, but I also recognize the enormous financial, cultural, social, and political benefits of the university's presence.

* I'm an alumnus who remembers "how much better it was when I was a student."

I represent myself on the board--at meetings of my assigned committees and at meetings of the full board of trustees. As a committee member, I have greater access to information than those trustees who are not committee members, and I need to be able to share that information in a manner that's meaningful but not overwhelming or confusing. I try to do what's right, knowing that doing right will also be doing good.

Quickly Finding Focus

Board member: Gayle Watson

Board: National Association of Women Business Owners, McLean, Virginia

Day job: President, Performance Solutions, Inc., Dallas;

BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE, I NEEDED TO understand the National Association of Women Business Owners' (NAWBO) history and current needs, assess the board's priorities, and align my personal resources to help both sides meet their goals.


Upon inspection, I quickly decided to focus my attention on the long-range goal of helping the board make a transition to a Policy Governance model.

At my first board meeting, I met the board parliamentarian, who was retained by the NAWBO president to ensure productive board meetings. After listening to her presentation on the board's role in governance, I was encouraged. My seven years on a non-profit board that implemented a transition to John Carver's model of Policy Governance helped me to understand where this board was on the continuum of Policy Governance. It was in its infancy.

Serving on a national organization's board requires patience and the ability to appreciate the transcendent nature of association board work. The work I begin on the board may not be completed before my term is up. Commitment to Policy Governance requires a conscious decision by the board to change its culture. Implementation of this type of change takes time, perhaps three or five years.

It takes a commitment from the entire board to monitor its role and to resist the tendency to micromanage staff. During board meetings, I find myself frequently asking my colleagues, "Is this something the board should be doing?" I have determined that perhaps my most important role as a new board member is reminding my board colleagues that we may need to lift our focus from operational details to a more strategic view.

Now in my second year of a two-year term, I am pleased with the significant shift in the board's thinking. Governance and organizational structure have emerged as high priorities. Again, I seized on the opportunity to offer my experience, volunteering to serve on the board's governance planning committee.

The board will need discipline to stay the course of implementing Policy Governance, especially during times of board leadership transition. We will need to educate new board members and continue to articulate board culture.

We are fortunate to have a capable staff to help us complete this governance transition. We know that we still have a lot of work to do, but we have made that all-important first step: recognizing the need.

COPYRIGHT 2004 American Society of Association Executives
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Article Details
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Author:Vaira, Douglas
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:Crafting mission statements: organizational development.
Next Article:Getting on board: discover what you need to know before taking your seat at the boardroom table.

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