Avoiding the Pitfalls [in Recruiting Board Members]

By Carol E. Weisman
From The Secrets of Successful Boards, F.E. Robbins & Sons, 1998, p. 18-20

Deal making. If you wake up one morning feeling like Monty Hall, go back to bed. The boardroom is no place to play “Let’s Make a Deal.”

So, what happens when you find this high profile person you really want, somebody like, well…Paul Newman. He says yes to your board, but then he says he can’t come to any of your meetings. What do you do?

Here’s the answer: there is a place for that person in your organization, and it’s not at the board level. He can chair an endowment, be honored at your charity ball, or be on your advisory committee. But if he can’t come to the board meeting, he cannot be on your board. Trust me, if they say they can’t show up, they won’t. So it’s not fair to the people you serve. And it’s certainly not fair to a great guy like Paul Newman, who’s going to get a bad rap even though he was straight with you in the first place.

The other Paul Newman dilemma. Don’t assume that having a well-known person on your board means you will have an active board member. These people are often willing to help, but they are often short on time. Again, there is a place for them, but it’s not on the board.

Friendly competition. Once again, let’s go back to our AIDS example. We may know of a great potential board member who’s active in the AIDS community. Not only is she a dynamic person, but we can talk shorthand with her because she already understands what AIDS patients need. But here’s the glitch: she could be up against us when it comes to funding. So, we may want to partner with her in some way, but we may not want her in our boardroom.

Misplaced experts. If you go after a board member with specific expertise, make sure he or she really belongs in the boardroom. This mistake often happens in medically-related groups. Folks who should be on an advisory committee are brought into a boardroom, where they decide on policy matters that really don’t interest them.

Selective listening. Don’t tune out your prospective board members the minute they say yes. You may miss out on important information that literally makes or breaks someone’s success on your board.

I recall a conversation with a PR executive from a major metropolitan newspaper. She told me, “they do the same darn thing every time I’m on a board, they don’t listen to me. I always tell them, if I’m on your board, do not expect me to do your PR, and I can’t get you coverage in the paper. That’s a conflict of interest.”

But guess what? When she accepts board nominations, they ask her to do the PR. And it happens time after time after time. Now, she won’t even join boards. It’s a shame, because she has a lot to offer in other areas.

The big lie. All of us have our “big lies.” For some of us, the big lie is that “you can wear that bridesmaid’s dress again.” But in the boardroom, it’s this: “Serving on our board is not going to take much time.” You and I both know that’s not the case. So don’t mislead your candidates to believe otherwise. You just set them up to fail.

Fear of rejection. Being afraid the word “no” can stop us from getting the board of our dreams. I’ve been turned down many times. But not once has anyone yelled at me and called me names for asking them to help. No one is ever insulted. After all, you’re bestowing an opportunity and an honor, you’re not imposing on them. It always needs to be perceived that way, and the perception starts with you.

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