8 Practices of Exceptional Boards

These eight practices can help improve the performance of all directors on your board. Here's how.

Oct 6, 2017 | BLOG POST

Your board faces competing demands on its time and attention: disgruntled constituents and staff create drama, a headline in the local paper might redirect your energies for the next year, and national politics promotes hidden agendas.  Outstanding boards keep their eye on the ball: their job is to govern. The job is harder than ever before, and finding the best people is not easy.  The top candidates are the least available and directors face high expectations. It is crucial that each director deliver his or her peak performance to keep up with the demands.  Yet most boards could identify at least one director who isn’t pulling his weight. These eight practices can help improve the performance of all directors. Here's how:

1. Identify the Cycles of Board Work

The work confronting every board is cyclical. Boards meet on a regular schedule, make decisions, generate reports, and engage in board development – which has its own cycles of: (a) planning and recruitment; (b) orientation and onboarding; and (c) evaluation and retention. In public governing bodies, the nomination and election of new members tends to steal attention from the tasks like onboarding and evaluating. But each part of the board development cycle relies and builds upon the others, and all require attention if the board is going to reach its potential.

2. Reimagine the Nominating Committee

Nominating committees are not what they used to be. The idea of a “nominating committee” is increasingly becoming passé, giving way to “governance” or “board development” committees.  Governance committees tend to have more power and more responsibility, not only overseeing the nomination of new directors but also monitoring the engagement and development of directors once they join the board.  The governance committee also takes responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of the board and intervening to make needed improvements. Regardless of what the committee is called, every board needs a group focused on questions such as:

  • Do our long-standing bylaws and committee structure support our the strategic plans?  Will our current structure make it possible to reach our goals?
  • What is this board’s primary focus for the year?  Is it the same in the mind of each director?
  • What opportunities, obstacles, and risks face the board? What additional information or tools would help to seize the opportunities, remove the obstacles, and reduce the risks?
  • Given the realities of our community ties and election cycle, how can we encourage the optimal mix of talents, experience, diversity, and personalities on the board?

3. Recruit for High Performance

The committee that recruits board members needs to hold a 3- to 5-year time horizon in view: What issues will the board be facing in that time? What specific talents will be needed? They should start by assessing what the board needs to accomplish to make the town meet its objectives. Those needs must then be translated into tasks and job descriptions.  It’s not enough to ask each director to mind his own networks; specific skills are needed. Choosing board members should receive the same level of care that you give to selecting a new Town or County Manager.


As with any job, you’ll attract the best talent if you write a clear job description and advertise the position widely.

What to include in a job ad for a director:

  1. Background. What is your municipal entity? It's mission? History? Operations?
  2. Board Member Job Description.  Give the size of the board, a listing of officer positions, frequency of meetings, length of terms, term limits, and duties of directors (e.g., serving on committees, making donations, attending events, etc.)
  3. Qualifications. What talents, skills, expertise, and experience are you seeking? What is your policy on board diversity?
  4. Application Procedures.  How do interested candidates get nominated/elected?  Where can aspiring candidates get assistance?
  5. Contact information. Provide the town’s website URL and contact information where candidates can follow up.

    Job descriptions may need to be updated; they should be customized to serve the strategic goals of the organization, and they should reflect the need of board diversity to generate fresh perspectives and ideas. The best way to start is to create a profile matrix of the current board members. Identify and “map” the mix of skill sets, attitudes, and experiences of the directors currently serving on the board.

    4. Think of Orientation as a Marathon, Not a Sprint

    All directors benefit from a comprehensive orientation program.  Orientation should provide as much self-directed discovery as possible to help new members come up to speed with the work and values of the board. They should come away with a clear sense of how they can add value to the group’s work.

    The best onboarding includes a “board buddy” or mentor program. Each newcomer is assigned someone to whom they can turn with questions. The board buddy can offer advice on how to fit into the board. Someone rotating off a board can provide mentorship as well as current directors can.  Meanwhile, all directors benefit from attending at least one orientation session annually – giving new and existing directors a chance to get to know one another and begin to develop strong teamwork.

    5. Frontload Feedback into Board Meeting Agendas

    If your town or county uses board management software, board meeting topics can be posted there prior to each meeting. An online poll can seek feedback from each director and from community members on which topics they consider priorities for discussion – and which topics could be covered by a written report. Getting input on the agenda works wonders for buy-in, with the result that fewer directors get sidetracked during meetings.  Allowing the community to front-load their comments on the board’s priorities has the added benefit of reducing the level of pushback the community might make on board decisions – if citizen comments are included in shaping the agenda, the community can feel more comfortable that concerns are being acknowledged. 

    6. Strengthen the Board’s Partnerships with the Community and Its Manager

    The town’s success relies on a strong and strategic partnership between the board chair and the Town Manager. Regular conversations and candid communications build mutual trust, which is the foundation for a shared governance model.  Even something as simple as a standing Friday morning phone call where the chair and manager each share what’s on their minds can go a long way toward fostering a strategic partnership.

    Each director needs to also forge some connection with the broader community. Set aside a few minutes at the start of each meeting for board members to share direct, personal experiences they’ve had in the community since the last meeting. If the board demonstrates that it actively seeks input from the community before decisions are final - the community’s input can help remind directors what’s at stake and why they serve on the board.

    7. Have Directors Share Insights

    Regardless of who serves on your board, your directors represent a broad range of perspectives. Let the group benefit from that breadth by discussing how issues appear from the different points of view represented on the board. Different perspectives will arise from not only from demographic diversity but also from the different talents and personalities represented. With greater diversity, groups behave differently; they tend to take the time to go deeper into topics, building better conversations and making better decisions.  In other words, it pays to seek out divergent points of view – particularly when the stakes are high.

    8. Codify Expectations for Director Performance

    Many boards have each member sign an annual agreement with a written list of goals and expectations – a “contract” that links the community’s needs to the board member’s talents and passions. The contract provides clarity, so everyone can openly ask, “Are we getting what we want from our work together?”  Board members perform at their best when they know exactly what is expected from them and when they have a chance to articulate what they want from the board experience.

    The committee responsible for the annual board assessment should create a process that allows the board to evaluate its purpose and priorities, as well as individual director performance. Secure board management software allows these evaluations to be conducted completely anonymously so that directors can provide candid responses. To identify the board’s development plan for the next year, the results can be analyzed in summary form and compared to the standards established by the strategic plan, bylaws, board development plan, and the directors’ individual “contracts.” At an annual board retreat or workshop, members can take stock of the evaluation results, identifying what they’ve achieved, what goals remain, how they can improve, and what new initiatives to undertake.


    New, innovative strategies help board directors become top performers who stay engaged throughout their terms. The traditional board timeline allowed a term “to learn” before a term “to do” and a term “to lead.” Today’s directors need to make a contribution on Day One. And they can. These Eight Practices will help your directors stay engaged as each becomes a peak performer for the duration of her term.

    To continue learning more, join the BoardDocs roundtable discussion on Monday, October 23: "More Governance, Less Drama Engaging (without Enraging) the Community in Board Decision," at 11:30 a.m. in San Antonio!

    Related Resources:

    ICMA Blog

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