How to be a Productive Board Member

I started work in corporate America right after I graduated from Harvard Business School and joined the marketing department at General Foods USA. After 17 years there, I did a stint at biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb and followed that with 12 years at Saks Fifth Avenue. Now, I divide my time among a number of ventures and serve on the boards of numerous nonprofits and corporations including J.C. Penney and Ruby Tuesday. Working on multiple ventures is vastly different than focusing on one brand 24/7. I no longer have a large staff and team of handlers, but my roles provide enormous intellectual challenge. I work just as hard now as I did as CEO and chairman of Saks, but my time is divided. Sitting on multiple boards requires I delegate where my services can be most useful. These are the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Allocate Your Time Wisely

Most of the small companies I’m involved with understand the limitations of my schedule. With smaller entities, I advise on strategic issues and specific problems, which is where my experience is most useful. In the end, I spend most of my time with the larger entities I advise. Given my corporate background, it’s where I have the most practical experience.

Recognize Your Role

The transition from CEO to board member can be difficult for a person who is used to being the decision-maker in a company. In the end, the people who operate the company on a day-to-day basis are going to be the ones making decisions. As a board member, you are a coach and an advisor, a representative for the shareholders and a resource for the management. The people who perform this role best recognize that they’re not the executives—even though they may be elsewhere.

Know When to Sit Back and Listen

In the early stages of board membership, it is very important to listen and not assume you know all the answers. Boards differ between companies and between industries. These are fundamental differences, and I think it is very important to be humble, develop your skill sets and earn your stripes as a board member. Each individual board runs differently. It is your responsibility to find the way to be most effective. Serving on boards can be an immensely challenging and engaging experience as long as you remember why you’re there.

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