Five lessons I learnt from taking a board position

5 minute read
Award-winning HR leader Shakil Butt has recently stepped from a board position at the UK’s CIPD. He shares his top five lessons from taking this leap with The People Space
Shakil Butt

Graphic of boardroom and people

Lesson 1: Silence the negative inner voices

Joining a board is like being the new person at school trying to find their place. The hardest part is not how others treat you, as typically others are likely to be welcoming and courteous.

The voices in your own head, if given permission, can be on a loop reminding you that you are the new person in the room, the others in the room are more experienced board members, the others have high profile roles in their day jobs.

The list of comparisons being made can be endless. If you happen to be different then those voices can get amplified. In my case I was the first and only South Asian person, a practising Muslim, coming from the charitable sector on a comparatively modest salary compared to my peers, which became evident when having banter over holidays and lifestyles.

Second guessing yourself means either you end up saying too much, repeating what has already been said or wishing you had made the point that someone else has just made because you fear you have nothing of value to contribute.

Learning point: If you are on the board, it is because you have already met their criteria and gone through their processes to get to this point. Your view has value. You have value! Now get out of your own way.

Lesson 2: Give yourself time.

Being able to fulfil your role as a board member to support and challenge the senior leadership team is only possible once you understand the strategy, what stage it is at and how it will deliver the mission.

This is a critical learning curve but made more difficult by the complexity of the organisation ,especially those working in this new world post pandemic, with a cost of living crisis and challenges on every front.

Joining a board means you will be bombarded with information which can feel relentless. As a board member you will have to get to grips with the different parts of the business and how they interconnect with each other. The website, the annual report, boardroom briefing papers including the operational report and subcommittees is a lot to absorb. That alone can be overwhelming.

As a board member dipping in and out periodically on a quarterly basis does mean memories can be unreliable and  conversations get repeated, so additional time needs to be invested beforehand to ensure you are making good use of the whole boards time together.

Learning point: No-one expects you to hit the floor running and inevitably you will make mistakes, come to the wrong conclusion and ask dumb questions. That’s okay. The first year or more will be like that, and the others have been through the exact same thing, so be patient and kind to yourself.

Lesson 3: Getting to know you.

As a board member you have likely met a few board members at the interview and selection stage, which is typically a fairly formal process, so you will not have really got past a surface level interaction.

Scheduled inductions with the board members and the senior leadership team members can help with understanding roles and responsibilities but does not give you a real measure of their strengths and personalities.

Once you join the board establishing a good relationship with the chair and other key board members is important, but that is not going to happen during the meetings themselves, as the focus is on the job at hand. It really is the time you are just waiting for a meeting to begin or when the meeting has ended and all the various breaks in between.

The chats over coffee and during lunch allow you to get past the larger than life personalities and see the person and vice versa forming real human connections. This was brought home to me during the pandemic, with the stark difference in how closely connected I felt to those who I had worked with pre- pandemic compared to those who had joined during the pandemic and whom I had only really interacted with over a Teams call.

Going beyond the board and senior leadership team and opting to meet with the heads of departments and their direct reports means you really are able to get a better perspective of what is actually going on in the organisation, rather than relying solely on the ‘polished’ reports being presented in the boardroom briefings.

Learning point: It really is about the relationships and not the work. Building human connections across the breadth and depth of the organisation outside of the boardroom will support your understanding of how you can really add value inside the boardroom.

Lesson 4: Getting involved

Being appointed on to a board is really only the beginning. Inevitably you will be asked to join  one of the committees or even chair them. You may get asked to sit on multiple committees which are aligned with your preference, your experience and your availability.

In addition to the committee, special working groups are often set up that need a board perspective to give assurance to the wider board. These can range from being involved with strategy,  values, transformation programmes and to enterprise systems implementation etc.

Championing a specific part of the business such as a certain geography that needs closer scrutiny and support or advocating for inclusion can help the organisation place a focus at the highest level of governance, sending a clear message that this is an area that is collectively important for everyone.

Being a board member also places you as an ambassador of the organisation, so speaking at public events and writing and contributing thought pieces can be a great way to represent and advocate for the organisation that you have stewardship over. This also brings you into contact with your stakeholders, including those you are there to serve, so do expect to be challenged. Meeting that challenge can instil confidence in those stakeholders turning your biggest critics into your organisations greatest supporters.

There is a danger of being stretched too thin but the upside is the degree of connection and understanding of the different moving parts, which means you can be more effective in your role as a board member.

Whatever your level of commitment it has to be exactly that, a commitment, because missing one meeting potentially means that from one board meeting to the next five to six months could have passed, diminishing your understanding and therefore your contribution to the board.

Learning point: To really have impact, get involved and play to your strengths. This can be a great learning opportunity to grow and become more strategic in your thinking, and seeing and understanding all  the parts leads to appreciating the greater whole. 

Lesson 5: Letting Go

Having disagreements in the boardroom is actually a significant part of having good governance. Having everyone around the table agreeing is not healthy, but nor is challenging for the sake of challenging.

Seeing the good in everyone around the table  and also  remembering that everyone’s opinion is as valid as yours.helps to keep emotions in check. If, for instance,there is a disagreement, there is a possibility that you are right and the other party is wrong, but equally you could be wrong and the other party right. Being respectful while having disagreements means the issue gets addressed whilst the relationship stays intact.

That said, nobody likes to be ‘shut down’, overruled or outvoted. How you deal with disagreement and conflict says everything about you and will win you respect and allies. Remembering why you are there, which is to add value, can be an anchor to help you combat your own ego.

A good chair will normally manage the space well, but If things have got heated, then checking in on one another can be the first step to rebuilding that relationship.

Learning point: Leave issues in the boardroom where they belong, so that when you finally step down you walk away with good memories and even better friends. It is only personal if you make it personal so  let go and move forwards.

Shakil Butt, pictured below, is an HR freelance consultant, D&I specialist and visiting lecturer. He served as treasurer and chair of the audit and risk committee at the CIPD from April 2016 to December 2022. He also sat on the people, culture and remuneration committee and was the board champion for inclusion

Shakil Butt

Published 29 March 2023
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