Board Leadership: My Path to Becoming Board President

May 6, 2015


A funny thing happened to me about a year ago.

After several months of “heavy volunteering” at The Center for Contemporary Art, I was invited to join the organization’s board. I was surprised and thrilled to be asked, and accepted immediately.

I was just settling into the new role when our board president asked me the Big Question — “So what would you think about taking over as Board President when my term ends?”

I think I may have laughed out loud. In fact, I’m sure I did.

I thought, “Me? Are you kidding? I practically just got here! I’m not ready for that. Ask me again in a few years.”

She asked me to at least think it over. And I did — over the next several weeks. But then she asked again.

I didn’t laugh the second time, but I did have a lot of questions, including, “Wouldn’t the vice president succeed the outgoing president?” “Sometimes,” was her reply. “But not necessarily.”

I kept pushing, but so did she, saying the board felt I was up to the challenge. Before long, I found myself short on time and running out of excuses to delay the inevitable. The president’s second term was coming to an end, and I knew she needed an answer. And by this time my executive director had asked me the Big Question, too. It was time to decide.

As I have done my whole life when facing a major decision, I sat down and started to make a list of pros and cons.

I always like to tackle the cons first. One jumped out at me immediately: Lack of prior experience. How could I become a board president if I had never been one before? Was I the only one worried about this?

But then it occurred to me I had done many other things in life – pretty successfully — that I had never tried before. I flung myself into marriage never having done that before. Dove into parenthood with no prior experience. Tried my hand at many different jobs, always convincing my bosses I was a “quick study” and would get the hang of things. And most recently, I had become a board member for the first time in my life, and so far that had gone well. So maybe I really could become president after all.

Then I considered the pros. As I thought about it in depth, there were many. If I took the role, I would work with a dedicated, hard-working board I truly felt I could count upon for support; an experienced executive director with a demonstrated record of excellent leadership; a supportive outgoing president who would continue to offer me guidance; and many valuable tools at my disposal that would help me gain more knowledge about board leadership when needed, including the Dodge Foundation Board Leadership Series and its Just-in-Time consulting and other free resources for nonprofit boards.

As I reviewed this impressive list of pros, my feelings about taking on the role of board president dramatically shifted. I knew the job would not be an easy one, but I was no longer terrified. Challenges were certain to arise, and some would be especially difficult. But whatever I faced, I knew I would have these incredible people and resources on my side. Secure in that knowledge, I finally said yes and stepped up to the plate.

I’ve only been board president at The Center for a few months, and so far it’s going well. Have there been hiccups? Mistakes? Of course. But there have been successes and good days, too.

And I’ve had the help I knew I count on to help me learn as I go. Dodge’s Board Leadership Series has been incredibly valuable to me. The workshops have given me a road map and tools that I rely upon to guide me in almost everything I do in my work on the board. Recently our Governance Committee turned to Just in Time Mentoring to resolve a question about one of our finance policies.  The guidance we received was exactly what we needed and helped us successfully move on to the next phase of our efforts.

Most days I am absorbed in thinking about what I can do to help The Center grow and evolve into something even more successful than it is now.

My responsibilities keep me plenty busy, and that’s a good thing. It means I have no time for petty worries about my experience for this job, or lack thereof.

I just roll up my sleeves and go to work.

Mary Lev is president of the board of trustees at The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, dedicated to broaden, deepen and diversify participation among audiences; challenge and inspire students, teachers, artists, enthusiasts and members of the community through opportunity to study, experience and create the multiple languages of the visual arts; and create a culture of the highest standards and expectations for artistic exploration, interpretation and perception. Learn more about The Center on its website,

Photo at Top Courtesy of Mary Lev: The author, at right, with fellow Board members Cecilly Sullivan (left) and Susan Bivona (middle), at a reception for Youth Art Month, hosted by The Center for Contemporary Art in March.