In more than 23 years spent working with 175-plus corporate boards, Beverly Behan has learned this firsthand: The problem people on any board are the ones who are oblivious and obstinate.
As a board advisor helping directors review performance, she sees the same dynamic repeat itself. She delivers negative feedback, and the recipient reacts in shock, then denial.
"The worst directors," she says, "disregard negative feedback. The best relish it as a chance to improve. And that is really the mark of a good director: devotion to continuous improvement."
Grasping our own shortcomings is always an intellectual and emotional challenge. But coming to terms with your own performance and reputation is vital. Are you serving the board? Or are you an impediment, the "bad" character everyone else is complaining about?
Many corporate boards have at least one such character. Often, it's a new member just learning the ropes, but sometimes it's a corporate veteran, grown complacent and mired in bad habits. Either way, you owe it to your colleagues to self-identify potential failures and correct them.
Here are five steps to ensure you're the "best" character on the board.
Understand the culture. Much of board service success relies on the social side of business. Members may be hired for their expertise, but it's their skill in building relationships that either makes or undoes them. So go to board dinners and other social affairs, even if they're advertised as optional. If group travel arrangements are made, don't opt for your own plans. Relationships are formed when personal details and the brass tacks of the business freely intermingle, like the contents of the cocktail in your hand.
Solicit feedback (in a roundabout way). Asking for direct feedback from colleagues is tricky. Will they dare be honest? So save the "How am I doing?" question for the board chair. Sitting across the table at a diner, coffee shop or fancy restaurant, a co-director might open up room for an honest conversation, some nugget of insight you can use, and help you find a key mentor.
Stay focused on what's important. New and old hands at the director game face a constant challenge to remember their job on a board is to govern--not manage as they did in executive positions on their way to this role.
Ram Charan, author of Boards That Lead, who has served on boards all over the world, says there are really only five meaningful areas high-functioning boards ever weigh in on...