The Tobias Leadership Center at Indiana University held its third Leader to Leader webinar in October 2020.
“We’ve heard from many of you in the past on an interest in understanding more about board service at the community, regional, and national level — including the different kinds of boards that you can be involved in from voluntary to nonprofit paid to business positions, “ said Julie Manning Magid, executive and academic director of the Tobias Leadership Center. “We’ve put this webinar together with experts to talk about the various experiences they have had in their leadership on boards. Our goal for this webinar is to provide insight on where you will be able to expand your leadership impact through board service.”
In the webinar, Alecia DeCoudreaux and Patty Martin shared their experiences and advice on how to find board opportunities, network and connect with other leaders, and serve in board positions that best fit one’s passions and skillset. Corey Wilson served as moderator.
Finding a board seat
“There’s not one route to a board seat, but there’s lots of information that goes into the selection of someone for a board,” said Alecia DeCoudreaux. “Similarly, you should do your research and learn as much as you can about the board. They’re not all looking for same thing at the same time.”
“The relationships that you develop in community boards can often lead to connections that help you along your journey,” said Martin.
They also agreed that research was a key element to discovering the kind of board work and board position that would be the right personal fit. When researching, DeCoudreaux and Martin, said it’s important to be direct and ask questions about the type of board and type of position or committee role.
“Remember not all boards are alike,” said DeCoudreaux. “Take the time to learn upfront what the requirements are for the board, what the responsibilities of each member are, what the culture of the board is like, what the time commitment is that you’ll need to make. It’s helpful, if not essential to talk to other board members.”
“Ask questions about any committees you’ll be serving on, and what the time commitment for that may be,” added Martin. “Is fundraising an expectation? At what level are board members engaging? If I could go back, there are times when I would have been more intentional in interviewing the board as they were interviewing me.”
“Guard your impulses to say ‘of course’ before you really understand the requirements upfront,” said DeCoudreaux. “There are times I’ve said ‘yes’ and didn’t follow my instincts, and I still regret it.”
Remember when asking the board questions to turn inward and ask yourself why you are interested in serving that position and on certain kinds of boards. Remember that time is an important commodity and be careful to invest it only where you feel you are making an impact about something that moves you.
“I’ve never set a time limit or number of boards I’ll sit on,” said DeCoudreaux. “We really could and should say no. Instead, find a board that connects to something you’re very passionate about. An example is when I joined the board for CVS Healthcare. The company had very recently made a decision to stop selling tobacco products. That said to me that this was a company that really believed in the mission that it was speaking about: healthcare. They were willing to put aside profit and to make a substantial change in order to truly demonstrate their commitment to being a healthcare company.”
“For me, it’s not so much a number of boards I’m willing to commit to, but where I’m able to contribute,” said Martin. “I like to choose board service based on different passions in my life. So I think about the areas of my life that I have strong passions such as faith, community, diabetes, and then look at what a board is really asking for as far as contribution and commitment.”
“The more passion you have, the harder you work, the harder you work, the more you contribute, the more you’re able to get done. And the harder you work, the more you get done, the more people recognize that and feel comfortable recommending you for other boards,” advised DeCoudreaux.
Networking and self-promotion
Both Martin and DeCoudreaux said that boards are not going to come look for you, so it’s important to refresh your connections and make sure your social media reflects your expertise.
“It’s important to intentionally connect with like-minded people,” advised Patty Martin. “Those connections and network can lead to other opportunities. It takes time. You do have to put yourself out there, but I’ve found people want to help, so don’t be shy about asking for help.”
“Be careful about what you put on social media,” said DeCoudreaux. “While I don’t believe it’s what will help you get your role, it certainly can stand in the way of you getting a role. People do look at your social media, especially LinkedIn, including head hunters. Present yourself well, but know it is ultimately relationships that make huge difference.”
How do you expand your network? Get involved! Both DeCoudreaux and Martin started in with community board service which introduced them to people and new opportunities for for-profit board roles. They said during COVID-19, there are multiple ways to do research on organizations, attend webinars, serve as speaker at virtual events, and refresh connections.
“Go to the United Way website, get to know their organizations and see if your passion aligns with any of them, and any you can see yourself offering your unique skillset to,” offered Martin.
“People are invited to serve for a variety of reasons, and much of it depends on what the board is looking for at that time,” DeCoudreaux shared.
Saying no and stepping down
If you have identified your passion, done your research, talked with board members, and agreed to the commitment, you should be ready to serve. But what if you find out information that makes you uncomfortable or the time commitment is not what you were expecting? Martin and DeCoudreaux shared advice on how to graciously step down or step back.
“If you’re not in a position where you can do your best work, or you’re asked to do things you don’t feel comfortable or qualified to do, you must sit down with the board chair and express that,” remarked DeCoudreaux. “It doesn’t do anyone a service if you are swimming upstream all the time.”
“I’ve started compiling a list of people so if someone asks me to serve, and I can’t, I can refer them to other options,” added Martin. “Remember that it’s okay to say no. It’s your time, and that’s a limited commodity.”
Individuals may reconsider stepping down if the board position serves as the voice of diversity.
“There are times it’s really important to stay where you are to accomplish certain goals,” DeCoudreaux said. “There is value is diversity and opportunities that be given to you that weren’t available to others even two years ago. We need to seize that opportunity and stay the course. Sometimes, we have a bigger cause than our self-interest and we have to work towards that cause.”
“If there’s something you need to give voice to, it’s often worth sticking around,” agreed Martin.
About the Panel
Alecia DeCoudreaux has been a leader at Eli Lilly and Company and served in numerous executive roles including vice president and deputy general counsel. She was formerly president of Mills College, now serving as president emeritus. She was also the chair of the board of trustees for Wellesley University, and served on the board for the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.
Patty is a former Tobias Fellow and graduate of the Kelley School of Business. She also earned her MBA from Harvard Business School. She serves as the president and CEO of BioCrossroads. Previously, she served in a number of executive positions at Eli Lilly and Company. She’s also served in a variety of different types of boards, including CareSource and the Kelley’s Dean Council.
Corey Wilson, also a former Tobias Fellow, is the vice president of community engagement with Pacers Sports and Entertainment. Prior to this role, he served in leadership roles at University of Indianapolis as a special advisor to the president, and the vice president of CSE Institute. He serves on numerous community boards including Great Places 2020 and the Indianapolis Urban League and has been recognized for his service to the community.
The full recording is available to Fellows and members of the Tobias Leadership Network. Contact the Tobias Leadership Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Tobias Leadership Center
The Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence asserts that Leadership Matters – Now More Than Ever. It is the mission of the Tobias Leadership Center to positively impact people and communities by developing leaders for organizations. We do that by creating unique leadership resources and transformative experiences that bridge the gap between knowledge and practice. Established at Indiana University, the Tobias Leadership Center is headquartered on the IUPUI campus in Indianapolis, Indiana. The center’s academic partners are the Kelley School of Business, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.