Recruiting board members who are a good fit

If you have ever been on a board with a board member who was a “bad fit,” you know how one person can change your perception of board service. You approach meetings with the secret hope that he won’t be there. You worry in advance about how he might react to the report you’ll be giving. You wonder whether he will manage to derail the meeting again or upset the executive director. And as chair, you spend time strategizing before meetings about how to neutralize or deflect his comments. If any of this sounds familiar, you’ve probably got a “bad fit.”

Rather than focus on how to fix this problem, let’s focus, at least for now, on how to prevent it in the first place.

In my work with boards, there are frequent examples of board members who are bad fits. When I ask for details, what I typically find is that the problem board member was hastily recruited and that he or she has very different expectations for the organization and for board service than the rest of the board. That mismatch of expectations can lead to considerable frustration for all involved.

It is worth noting here that people who could be a really good fit on one board can be a really bad fit on your board. I’ve actually been one of those people. I joined a board believing I was going to help the organization change the world. What I found was that the board and the staff leadership were determined to keep doing what they were doing and “play defense” against those who wanted the organization to take on a more ambitious role. If I had done my homework, and if they had done their homework, I would not have pursued a position on that board. As it turned out, I was the “bad fit” who others spent time planning around, and I came away very dissatisfied and frustrated with the entire experience (and I know that I didn’t gain any new friends along the way!).

The goal here should be to make sure that every board member that you bring onto your board is a “good fit,” for your sake and theirs. This doesn’t mean that you are looking for board members who all think the same way, never disagree, and are unwilling to engage in healthy debate. You want diverse perspectives and opinions on your board, but you also want board members who share a vision for the organization’s future, are ready to work with the rest of the board, and will comfortably fit within your board and organizational culture.

You can improve your odds of achieving a good fit by doing the following:

• Do your homework when recruiting – Do a bit of reference checking to see if someone you trust can say whether the board candidate “plays well with others.” Ask, “Would you look forward to serving on a board with this person?” If your board candidate has served on another board, what role did he or she play on that board; how did others regard him/her; and what were some of the contributions he/she made to the work of that board? Seek more than one opinion—my friendship with a candidate can easily cloud the reality that someone else could provide.

• Be attentive to board culture – The hard-charging owner of the local construction company may not be a great fit on a board that places a priority on ensuring that every voice is heard and achieving consensus before making a decision. Will the new board member find his or her peers on the board? Based on what you know about the candidate, can you imagine him or her comfortably sitting at your board table?

• Be clear about expectations – Before you ask the candidate to join the board, take time to describe where your board and organization is at right now and where you see things heading. Talk about what role you hope he or she might play on the board. Then listen. Does he or she have an agenda that aligns with what you’ve described? Does he or she think this will be a good fit? Give the candidate plenty of room to turn you down.

• Engage him/her immediately – There are few things more frustrating than joining a board, ready to work, and find you are doing little more than listening to reports and rubber-stamping decisions. Find roles for board members that match their abilities, make good use of their strengths, and are meaningful to the organization. If you don’t give me something meaningful to do, I will start to look for something to do, and you may not like what I choose!

Simply put: do your homework when recruiting. Make sure you and the candidate both feel that this is a good match. Be clear about expectations. And put the new board member to work right away on something that will be meaningful to the organization and to him or her.

You can contact Jeff Wahlstrom at [email protected]  to ask questions about this topic or to get other board governance advice.