Skip links

How to Build the Board of Directors: Selecting Your Dream Team

Two decades ago, Jim Collins wrote the best-selling book “Good to Great,” which identified characteristics of companies that significantly out-performed others in their respective industries. First among the characteristics was “First Who, then What,” a chapter on getting the right people on the bus. The advice is just as relevant to the clubs as it is to other organizations. Below is a proven approach for a club to get the right people on its board.

Basic Principles for Assembling an Olympic-caliber Board

In 1992, the USA basketball team defeated Croatia 117-85 for the Olympic Gold Medal. The score was the closest any opponent would come to the group of U.S. players known as the Dream Team, which included rebounders like 7-foot Patrick Ewing, ball handlers like 6-foot John Stockton, and scorers like 6-foot-6-inch Michael Jordan. The Dream Team operated as a unit with each player applying his individual skill to the team’s objective.

It may be a stretch to compare the election of a club’s board of directors with the selection of an Olympic basketball team. Yet, while there’s no gold medal for those elected, the principles of assembling a club board are not so different from those an Olympic coach employs when selecting a squad. Those principles are described below along with thoughts on applying them to a club’s board election process.

Principle 1: Be Intentional in Defining Your Team

How would you describe the types of people you want on your board? Here are three categories of criteria: 

  1. Required characteristics 
  2. Desirable characteristics 
  3. Desirable experience/skill sets

Category I: Required characteristics. These characteristics are just that, required. Your bylaws may contain some necessary criteria, such as a candidate being an equity member, being a member for a certain number of years or having served as a member of a committee. The board can expand the list of essentials to include qualitative features such as a candidate being known as a person of trust and integrity or for being a team player, as an example. Although such qualitative features may seem hard to define, they are the most important of the required characteristics. Team players don’t come with personal agendas; they listen to the views of others; and they foster the collegial culture you want on your board. Don’t worry about the lack of a concrete definition of a team player. Your Nominating Committee will know what you mean.

Category II:  Desired characteristics. You’ve heard that a club board should mirror its membership and here is where you make it happen. Club memberships are typically diverse, and you want your board discussions to benefit from that diversity. This is not about quotas or diversity for sake of political correctness; this is about  seeking perspectives, a full range of them. Decide which points of view would be valuable on your governing body (different age groups, different genders, different interests in club activities, etc.). You may want to be specific in terms of the number of board members in a particular category, for example, at least one from each age group, or you may simply direct the Nominating Committee to take the makeup of the board into account as it evaluates candidates. 

Be careful here, however. You are seeking perspectives, not representatives. You want board members to bring insight and enlightenment, a commitment to the duty of loyalty, which is putting the interest of the club ahead of any personal interest. You don’t need board members who consider it their responsibility to represent a particular age group or activity. Such an attitude leads to factions and cliques. Although you want your board discussions and decisions to benefit from the different perspectives around the table, you want decisions to be made in the interest of the club overall. In short, debate as many; govern as one.

Category III: Desirable experience/skill sets. Along with the multiple perspectives you want at your board meetings, you also want multiple skills and expertise—perhaps an accountant, an attorney, an engineer, a real estate expert and members from other professionals. The list will depend on your type of club and the kind of issues your board and club may be facing. In addition to particular skill sets and professions, you may want to consider time on a particular committee and the effectiveness of the prospective candidate as a committee member.

Once you have completed the criteria under each of these categories, put them in writing. Develop a Board Profile (see sidebar on page XX) and instruct your Nominating Committee to honor it during its process of selecting candidates. 

Remember that Category I traits are the only ones required of each candidate. The characteristics in Categories II and III are desirable, but not mandatory. You may not be able to check off every item in Categories II and III, but your board can direct the Nominating Committees to try. Instruct it to ensure that all candidates possess Category I characteristics and to use its best efforts to select candidates with perspectives listed in Category II and expertise/skill sets in Category III. 

Principle 2: Form an Independent and Objective Nominating Committee

Build your dream team by laying a firm foundation. Assemble a Nominating Committee that is independent and objective, a goal that is far easier to set than it is to accomplish. If your bylaws dictate the process used in forming your Nominating Committee and you don’t feel you can amend them, you are, of course, bound by it. 

It is difficult to define an “ideal” process for selecting Nominating Committee members, but general advice is to keep it simple. Clubs devise complicated schemes for populating Nominating Committees in an attempt to achieve independence and objectivity. But these processes are too often over-engineered, and they not only don’t guarantee an independent, objective Nominating Committee, but also add an unwanted level of complexity to the election process. 

The most efficient approach is to select the chair of the Nominating Committee based upon the highest standards of integrity and impartiality. Allow him or her to use the same standards to choose the other committee members and present them to the board for approval. While this may be the most efficient method of forming a Nominating Committee, most clubs would rule it out as politically incorrect and undemocratic. It places too much power in one person. So, most clubs install methods such as having a Nominating Committee elected by the members, using a lottery to pick committee members, drawing on the immediate past president to chair the committee, and many other approaches. Your process will depend on your club’s culture and the level of trust your members have in the board. 

Whatever process you choose for selecting your Nominating Committee, ensure that it includes a filter that tests for independence and objectivity. Be sure also that your Nominating Committee is committed to using the board profile you have established as part of honoring Principle 1.  

Principle 3: Use an Uncontested Election Process

The third principle in building a dream team is to conduct an uncontested election, whereby the Nominating Committee selects a slate of candidates equal to the number of board positions to be filled. No election process is completely void of politics, but uncontested elections keep the damage brought on by politics to a minimum.  A contested election will frustrate your attempts to build a dream team as it will allow your new board members to be elected on their popularity, their affiliation with a particular group or some basis other than the merits posted on your board profile. If your bylaws call for contested elections, try to change them. Even if you have an uncontested election process, your bylaws may allow for nominations by petition signed by a certain number of your members. If so, incorporate two features to your election process:

  • Ensure your ballot distinguishes between the nominees from the Nominating Committee and the nominees from petitions.
  • Require voters to vote for the number of candidates equal to the vacant slots on the board.

If you include these two features and have honored the first two principles in this article, your members will elect those candidates nominated by the Nominating Committee.

Your Dream Team is within Reach
Calling your board a dream team may be a bit much, but the principles and practices described above are well within your reach. If you don’t set a target, you’ll miss it every time. If you don’t define what you want your board to be, you won’t achieve it. Decide what your ideal board looks like, write it down, select a Nominating Committee that will honor the board profile, and watch your dream team develop and serve your members with distinction.