As a young boy, I always enjoyed watching parades in “The Loop”, the heart of downtown Chicago. Bright colors, shiny instruments, and a snappy pace. So impressive and memorable. If you’ve seen the movie The Music Man, you know what I mean.

I was so impressed every time either a military unit or a marching band came by. They seemed so confident and so organized. They knew exactly what they were doing and seemed to act as one body, working in unison. One body made up of individuals all doing exactly what they needed to do. I wondered how they could make that happen.

Little did I know then just how much work it took to get them to that point of near-perfect precision.

Wouldn’t it be great if your board could operate that way? It could, you know, but you and the directors would have to put in the time to make it happen.

I regularly talk with board members, chairs, and executive directors. One of the most frequent things I hear is that the board isn’t coming together, isn’t doing its job. Worse yet, is when someone’s board is trying hard, but it is stuck in the mud, getting nothing accomplished. Such a waste.

Well, I thought I’d share with you my thoughts on how to set up your board for success. These are six simple, though maybe not easy, steps you can take to make your board the envy of all of your executive director friends.

Step 1. Jointly Create a Strategic Plan

By creating a strategic plan, everyone in your board can understand the mission and where the agency is headed. This gets everyone on the same page and unified. It can also weed out directors who may not be a good fit for your mission. Need help creating a strategic plan? You can start the process by downloading 5 Steps for Strategic Planning Success. This free resource will help you learn how to create an effective Strategic Plan.

Step 2. Determine What Your Board Needs

Determine what mix of skill sets, connections, and other assets you need on your board to accomplish your mission. I firmly believe in identifying and recruiting board candidates who can help advance your mission. People with wisdom and good decision-making skills should be high on your priority list.  Friends and family members should not be candidates unless they bring something more to the table.

Step 3. Develop and Use a New Director Orientation Program

New directors have a significant learning curve. Even ones who have prior board experience. Avoid having a new director spend the first 6-months just sitting, listening and not being a part of your board’s deliberations. Get them up to speed and contributing meaningfully in board discussions by immediately filling in their knowledge gap. Custom-build your orientation program to match your strategic plan and the needs of your board. 

Step 4. Establish Mentor/Mentee Relationships

Establish mentor/mentee relationships by partnering new and experienced directors. Your new directors will appreciate having a safe space to ask questions. Asking questions in board meetings can be intimidating. Having a one-on-one relationship will help new directors grow into their role faster. 

Step 5. Set Clear Expectations for Each New Director

They need to know everything you expect of all directors. Especially what role you hope your new director will play. Some are recruited for their wisdom, others for their network, some for their financial skills, and some for their access to the local philanthropic donor community. This is best done by being direct and open about the expectations.

This would also include topics like:

    • Mandatory meeting attendance
    • Active board and committee meeting involvement
    • Financial support “Give or Get” requirements

Step 6. Conduct Annual Board and Individual Director Reviews

Too often, board chairs and executive directors accept marginal performance by the director when that just does not have to be the case. Annually reviewing how each director and the board performed is a powerful way to maintain clear communications, improve everyone’s performance, and keep the board operating smoothly.

If you’d like to see how your leadership tendencies measure up or how on-track your board really is, take our Leadership Assessment and our Board Assessment to find out. Then, let me know what you learned from it all.