Pro Bono Partnership Pundit: Look Hard for ‘Soft’ Skills on Your Board

April 19, 2016

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“What should we look for in recruiting good board members?” Our clients often ask us this question and, while there is no simple answer, there are some important considerations.

This post focuses on “soft skills,” which can impact how well the board functions and meets its legal obligations.

There are a number of qualities considered typical of a good board member. Enthusiasm for the organization’s mission is a requirement for any board member. After that prerequisite, the organization usually focuses on the hard skills, or specific competencies, desired for the board. No matter what hard skills are being sought for the board, however, every candidate’s soft skills, or interpersonal traits, should be carefully vetted to ensure that the individual has both sets of skills necessary to be an effective board member.

Organizations need board members who understand a board’s responsibilities, who possess the hard skills desirable for governing the organization, and who have the soft skills necessary to work effectively in a group. Members who are new to board service can be educated about the responsibilities of the board.

The organization should pay the most attention to hard and soft skills in the recruitment process. There are a variety of hard skills that will contribute positively to the mix of skills on the board, which will change over time as the organization evolves.  Every board member should have soft skills, as they are qualities that result in a well-functioning group.

Board members must be able to work as part of a team, because a board acts both collaboratively and collectively. Under most circumstances, once there has been an opportunity for a free and open discussion on a matter, members should respect the decisions of the majority and support them as decisions of the entire board.

At the same time, board members must be mindful of their fiduciary duties to the organization. They must not be so collegial that they fail to structure governance principles, policies, and practices to ensure that board members are fulfilling their fiduciary duties and, in small organizations without staff, managing the organization effectively.  With good soft skills, members can work assertively to fulfill their duties to the organization while maintaining a good working relationship with each other.

If the organization has paid staff, board members should understand that they are not hands-on managers. Their responsibility is to make certain that the organization is being managed well and has the resources to successfully fulfill its mission. They should accept that the day-to-day activities of the organization are managed by the executive director.  At the same time, the board cannot be so deferential to the executive director that it allows that person to dictate the board’s activities.

The board must ensure that the standards it has established for governance of the organization are being followed. Again, with the necessary soft skills, board members can effectively meet their obligations while maintaining a positive relationship with the executive director.

If board members aren’t working well together or with the executive director, hard skills often won’t matter. It is usually the soft skills that prevent a board from becoming dysfunctional. Pro Bono Partnership provides resources on corporate governance, board development, and board assessment, many of which are on our website. Only you can make sure that your organization’s board members have those soft skills.

Kent Hansen-PhotoKent E. Hansen is a senior staff attorney with Pro Bono Partnership, Inc.  Pro Bono Partnership provides free business and transactional legal services to nonprofits serving the disadvantaged or enhancing the quality of life in neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.