Building Your Board: Look for Qualities, Then Names

As I continue to go around the country visiting orchestras and meeting with boards of directors, I learn more and more about what makes for a successful orchestra. I always knew that the key ingredient was a strong board, but the more experience I get the more important that ingredient seems to me. And more and more, boards are coming to grips with their importance. So I find myself being asked more frequently how to go about building a strong board. What goes into it?
One observation I have made is that many nominating committees go about this in the wrong way: They begin their deliberations with names of possible new board members, instead of ending with that. The very first thing a nominating (or governance, or board-development) committee should do is to start with a blank slate and develop a list of skill sets, personal attributes, and qualifications that it believes the board needs. This will vary somewhat depending perhaps on the size of the orchestra: In smaller ones the board may well be expected to do some of the work (marketing, for example) that larger orchestras assign to paid staff. So here are some of the specifics that such a list might include. This is not meant to be a complete list--I'm not going to do all your work for you--and these items are in no particular order:

Significant financial resources
Access to financial resources
Marketing skills
PR skills
Fund-raising skills
Willingness to fund-raise
Legal experience
Nonprofit governance experience
Musical knowledge
Knowledge of the community
Political connections
Connections to diverse communities
Experience in education
Finance and accounting expertise

And there are others--different orchestras would develop different lists. But the point is that you think carefully about your list, about what skills, experiences, and qualifications you need on your board.

Your next step is to rate every current board member, perhaps on a one-to-five scale, in each of the areas you've developed. The purpose of this is not to make a report card for each person on your board. It is to see where the board has sufficient strength and where it does not. You don't need seven people with marketing skills and no one who is willing to fund-raise!  

Once the nominating committee (and I'll keep using that name, even if yours is called the governance or board-development committee) identifies the areas that need strengthening, only then  is it time to consider the names of people who can strengthen those specific areas. The ideal board is one that has worked hard and diligently at achieving a good balance among all of the attributes that it requires to do its work.

Do board members all have to have a deep knowledge of music, or an ability to identify which Bruckner symphony is playing at the moment? No, although it is surely a good thing if some of them do. Perhaps the most important asset of a board member is a deeply held belief that the orchestra is crucial to your community. A passionate belief in the work of the orchestra is a must.

Along with that belief--and along with some of the skill sets or qualifications noted above--there is one other really important trait required of board members: They work and play well with others. The passionate, dedicated, even generous board member who derails meetings, who cannot join a consensus because he must get his way, or who detracts from a big-picture discussion by focusing on small details--"shouldn't the subscription brochure have been blue? Who decided it should be red? That's the wrong color"--this is not a healthy board member.

The more experience I get, the more I realize that for a board to function well, and to create the climate of success in which the orchestra can thrive, board meetings must be meaningful. They must discuss questions that really matter, and must have about them an atmosphere of constructive work. Anything detrimental to that end--even a disruptive board member--needs to be removed from the board. I have actually been asked, more than once, how much of an annual contribution makes it worthwhile to put up with a disruptive board member who makes meetings uncomfortable. My answer is that there is no financial contribution big enough to compensate for the damage done by such a personality. It takes courage for nominating committees to do their work properly, to evaluate the total picture of a board member's contributions to the orchestra--intellectual, financial, emotional, spiritual. But that is the only way to ensure a well-functioning, strong, healthy board of directors.

March 20, 2009 12:19 PM | | Comments (2)

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2 Comments

Dear Henry:

Thanks for these insights. It echoes what I have been saying to my own nominating committee. Something that you might address in a future column is the troubling trend of some corporations restricting giving to nonprofit organizations unless there is an employee of the corporation serving on the nonprofit org's Board. There is quite a lot of this in my community and there are obvious pitfalls in this approach.

Henry --

Once again your comments about boards reflected your fair-minded wisdom on this subject. Thank you for sharing.

Two points you raised have prompted me to comment. You wrote --

"Do board members all have to have a deep knowledge of music, or an ability to identify which Bruckner symphony is playing at the moment? No, although it is surely a good thing if some of them do. Perhaps the most important asset of a board member is a deeply held belief that the orchestra is crucial to your community. A passionate belief in the work of the orchestra is a must."

While symphony or opera boardmembers may not necessarily require a deep knowledge of music to serve effectively, a "passionate belief in the work of the orchestra" can take a dangerous detour toward artistic stagnation or mediocrity if the passion is not founded upon a healthy respect for the music itself. I well recall the comment of a Tulsa Philharmonic board member following that orchestra's cessation of operations: "The TPO did not play the kind of music people wanted to hear". -- "Like what?" I asked, expecting to hear some rant about Webern, or a recent world premiere with a distinctly complex musical language. "Well, they played music by...by...well, by....BARTOK!!!!"

For this board member, a reasonable breadth of repertoire (for the sake of the musicians' craft and the public's exposure) had little to do with the "work of the orchestra". The bottom line grew to be the only thing that mattered, and the rest is history with that particular orchestra. In these challenging financial times, and particularly for those regional orchestras limited to 4-9 classical music concerts per season, how would you respond to a well-intentioned board member who nonetheless feels that Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (or other such radical 20th-century works...) has no business being performed, particularly if ticket sales do not match an all-Beethoven or all-Brahms evening?

Regarding your second point:

"...board meetings must be meaningful. They must discuss questions that really matter...Anything detrimental to that end--even a disruptive board member--needs to be removed from the board... there is no financial contribution big enough to compensate for the damage done by such a personality..."

I imagine that many of your readers immediately related to your brochure comments with wry smiles of appreciation. This said, in your experience, 1) who is ideally suited to invite/encourage a "disruptive" board member to leave the board?, and 2) if a board president or nominating committee is reluctant to issue such a removal despite a screaming need to restore meaningful board meetings, what means are left for a CEO to remove Mr. or Ms. Disruptive from the board?

Thank you in advance for any follow-up thoughts.



To answer your question, if the Board Chair and/or Nominating Committee Chair will not remove a disruptive or destructive Board member, then the CEO has to find other leadership on the Board. Generally there are good, smart leaders on the Board, often respected by the full Board even if without an official title or position on the Board, and the CEO must enlist their help. If there is no such person, then what you really have is an unhealthy Board that needs very serious work from the bottom up. It is almost impossible for the paid CEO to do something like this (i.e., bring about the removal of a disruptive Board member) alone. And that is as it should be – this is the work of the Board.

-Henry

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on March 20, 2009 12:19 PM.

The League of American Orchestras Conference: An Essential Investment in Troubled Times was the previous entry in this blog.

Should Orchestra Trustees Have Term Limits? is the next entry in this blog.

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