Leadership 101: Board Governance

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” – Rosalynn Carter

Leadership is a critical skill that we all need and should work to nurture in the course of our lives. Over time I’ve occupied leadership positions, both official and unofficial. In all these roles I’ve had to contend with dynamics of the circumstances, respond to needs and most importantly strive to keep the organization grounded through development of needful structures. These have been fulfilling experiences as much as they have been learning experiences that have granted me an opportunity to grow both professionally and as a person. Last year I was honored to be elected to serve in the Board of Kenya Association of Pharmaceutical Industry (KAPI), a member-based organization focusing on improving access to quality, life-saving medicines to the Kenyan populace by championing for an enabling business environment. Acknowledging my passion in health, and pharmacy background this was a welcome call.

Having been in leadership positions within the managerial/operational realm, I didn’t quiet comprehend the dynamics of working as a board member and shaping the course of action without actually meddling with operational aspects of organization. This started my journey for which I am keen to share some of the lessons I’ve learnt through this journey. As I reflect on the quote by Rosalynn Carter, to a great leader we need to chaperone the entities we lead to where they ought to be not where they want to be.

  1. As a board member, you are not involved in day to day running of the affairs of the organization. You need to detach from the operations to be able to offer oversight and guidance where necessary. When you become a part of the operations team, you usurp the power from them crushing the organizations spirit. This also helps have the operations team to learn, grow and develop their leadership muscles in the process.
  2. As a board member, you are a champion and an ambassador of the organization. You need to embody the principles, values and behaviors of the organization you represent and that is why before taking the role you must be cognizant of what the organization stands for and reflect on whether they align with your values. At times people take up board positions out of need to get involved or in order not to disappoint the requesting/appointing entity. This ultimately ends up failing the organization in terms of lacking vibrant representation at the board level or even having a detached board member altogether. You have to subscribe to the mission of the organization and if you feel there is a need to refine some aspects, that is your role within the board. No organization wants an absent board member in its board.
  3. Board membership position is an opportunity to shape the strategic direction of the organization. It therefore calls on one to be knowledgeable about the industry whether in history, emerging trends and current dynamics including the organizations position in the space. On this account it is important for any board member before or after appointment to acquaint themselves with the policy documents of the organization. At the least the strategic plan which hopefully should be comprehensive and informed by previous trends thus a snapshot of what the organization is looking at. With external facing insights, they are then able to guide the organization to its success by understanding what’s in scope for the period.
  4. A board position is not an opportunity to pursue your personal interests at the expense of the organization. This is the reason some organizations would require one to declare any conflict of interest (CoI). Being a board member doesn’t preclude you from pursuing your interests but not at the expense of the organization. Sometimes, the positions you hold in other personal capacities would be critical in shaping the course of the organization you serve as a board member. Key is to acknowledge the position you hold, its demands on you and what your obligations are to the organization. When at risk, it’s important to disclose. Honesty is the best policy.
  5. As a board member you have to be available for the management team to advise, guide and consult when & where needed. It’s notable that organizations nominate you to serve it their boards because of your presumed value & possible contribution to it towards the realization of its mission. If you are not accessible to support, there’ll be no value having you on the board.
  6. As a board member your allegiance lies with the organization not individuals in the board, management or any other entity within the purview of your mandate. You should therefore discharge your responsibilities & mandate diligently without fraternizing.
  7. Finally, board positions are not paid positions. These are opportunities to be of service to the organization, society and the course for which one is passionate about.

These are lessons I have learned through reading, observing and consulting from those who’ve been part of the process and I am glad to say it is a fulfilling experience. Other than sharing these with you as a prospective board member, I’ve written this article to enable those running organizations for which they have been keen to have board members (advisory, governance etc.). You need to be critical on who you have on your board and be clear on the perceived value they stand to bring to the organization.

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