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Getting Real

Everybody on board

My life as a former chief sustainability officer has become extraordinarily busy and my pursuits surprisingly diverse. I find I’m doing nearly as much mentoring and coaching as I did when I was a future ex-CSO.

I’ve canvassed to get out the vote for I-1631, Washington state’s initiative to impose a fee on carbon. (Not my favorite sport, nor did it work this time. Still, I’m convinced that changing the system isn’t about changing minds so much as mobilizing supporters, and for that you have to knock on doors.)

I’ve been conniving with fellow ex-CSOs seeking ways to raise the expectations for corporate sustainability. Speaking opportunities have started to arise again. Occasionally (although, I dare say, not often enough), I settle in to write about my experiences.

And yes, I’m still toughing it out with flute lessons.

The greatest demand on my time, and one of the most rewarding, is serving on nonprofit boards. It’s incredibly motivating, if a little humbling, to join a group of smart, engaged people in a variety of fields, many of whom I never might have met otherwise. Each board is different, and I learn from each lessons that can be carried to the others.

But I have discovered things that I wish I’d understood better before jumping in. 

Of course, the first question on each opportunity is, "Should I join this board?" Honestly, the first time I was asked, I was so honored that I performed nearly zero diligence. The only people I really talked to were the person who recruited me and a person who later turned out to be giving me a, shall we say, "highly edited" version of the organization. Suffice to say, there were challenges.

Digging deeper

Not that I’ve yet encountered an organization, nonprofit or otherwise, that wasn’t grappling with some challenge. Hell, if they weren’t, there’d be nothing to do. But some challenges are more dire than others, and my skills are more useful in some than in others. I’ve had to learn to dig a little deeper and cast a little wider to figure out what I’m getting myself into. 

Then there’s the question of what I personally bring to the table. Boards classically look for director candidates who bring some combination of the 3Ts: Time, Talent and Treasure. (Some look for the 3Ws: Work, Wisdom and Wealth; same thing.) While all boards need effort, skill and funding, the required balance is specific to the organization and can change over time. What I’ve learned is that what I thought I was good for was not always what they wanted me for. And what they wanted me for was not always what I turned out to be good for.

As an active CSO, conversations about joining boards focused on my potential contributions with regard to mission alignment, organizational skills, expertise and connections. But there is no question that access to corporate pockets was a — if not the — top attraction. I’ve never been good at fundraising and was probably a disappointment in that regard.

So, I considered it a real compliment to have two boards decline my offer to give up my seat when I left my corporate role.

I've always tried to compensate by being incredibly diligent, always reviewing board materials before meetings, bending my schedule to attend meetings, participating as much as possible in voluntary events and delivering on my commitments. I’ve also tried to make myself available to the executive team if there is anything I can do to assist. I admit to having been incredibly touched and flattered when the chair of one of my committees described my value as "common sense and wisdom."

I admit to having been incredibly touched and flattered when the chair of one of my committees described my value as 'common sense and wisdom.'
Now, I feel pretty good about being able to apply some of my experience in IT and corporate sustainability, but it’s generally the more horizontal skills of project management, team leadership, collaboration and mentoring that comprise my contributions. (That’s probably why I’m on the governance committee and/or executive committee of each of my three current boards.) It pays to have a good talk with both the board chair and the executive director about what they are looking to me for, and to try not to underestimate what I have to offer.

Time and task forces

All of this work takes time. I knew that going in. Two face-to-face meetings per year plus two long conference calls are pretty standard for non-industry boards. Add a few hours here and there for a committee.

How hard can that be? Harder than it seems, it turns out. One thing I will certainly ask more about next time around is scheduling: How far in advance are meetings scheduled? Is there a history of having to reschedule? What time of year are they typically held? I know just a little about probability, and these meetings seem to conflict with one another far more often than mere chance would dictate!

Then there’s the second committee I inevitably get persuaded to join. And the task forces we decide to form. As committee chair, additional activities include preparing the agenda and the minutes, coordinating with staff, initiating new committee members. I’m a little better at delegating than fundraising, but not much, which usually means drafting and managing any documents that we need to produce. But I really enjoy committees because that’s where a lot of the concrete work gets done, whether its finding new board members, clarifying roles and responsibilities, updating bylaws, refining succession plans, etc. 

One reason I’m grateful to my corporate work is that it did make it possible for me to cover the expenses of serving on some of these nonprofit boards. Travel to board meetings is rarely reimbursed, and most boards ask members to make or be responsible for a donation. I’ve never been asked to meet a minimum number, but most boards want to see full participation as an indication of board members’ commitment to the organization and as a signal to other prospective donors. In fact, it is sometimes a requirement by foundations and other funders.

There are frustrations.

There are board members who don’t do their share of the lifting — who show up occasionally, opine on one issue or another, then disappear into the mist. Thankfully, they are few and far between.
It makes me crazy when long-scheduled meetings get moved at short notice. There are board members who don’t do their share of the lifting — who show up occasionally, opine on one issue or another, then disappear into the mist. Thankfully, they are few and far between. I’m lucky now that all of my boards are highly engaged, opinionated but respectful and committed to the success of the organization. I really enjoy the teamwork and the new friendships they’ve spawned that will transcend our board terms. 

Yeah, I like board work. Oh, I grumble about it — just ask my husband. But the truth is that I appreciate having things to do each day that are productive. He knows that I thrive when I have a focus, a deliverable, a team and a purpose.

Or two. Or three.

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