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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

What does it mean to be on a board?

I joined two non-profit boards in 2018. The first, as a director at large for the Northwestern University Alumni Association, where I went to school. This was perhaps the more obvious transition. I’ve been volunteering as an alumni leader in some capacity since 2012. On this board, I sit on the digital transformation committee and have a role that’s intended to open communication channels between local club leaders and the broader board.

The second is the board of Comp Sci High, a new charter school that just opened in the Bronx for its first batch of freshmen students this fall. Certainly, this would appear to be the less obvious role. While I’ve engaged in ad hoc, side project educational initiatives for the past several years of my life, I’m not an educator (and never have been). My role on this board is to head up the advancement committee, liaising between industry professionals in technology and business to advise on frameworks for workforce development and career-ready programs for the students.

It’s all very exciting, of course. I’m humbled to be able to get such an inside peek into two different organizations that both promote values I care so much about.

But it has brought up a very new question for me: What exactly am I supposed *do* as a board member?


The art of getting things done

The very first thing I remember “leading” was being President of our freshmen class in high school. Before you get too excited, I must confess — there was no race, no election. The only reason I got the job was because nobody else stepped up to volunteer, and my mom, as an administrator in the school, “volunteered” me and my best friend for President and Vice President respectively. (It’ll look good for the college resume, we both said with a wink.)

Our first big project was to organize the Homecoming dance. So we developed a theme, designed a communication strategy, advertised the dance on the morning school-wide TV news channel, and recruited volunteers (aka: our other friends) to help us decorate. We finished on time. Kids showed up. The dance happened. Well done, us. We just led a thing.

“Boards” in college were pretty similar. At Northwestern, there are something like 500 student groups, so everybody walked around campus with ta short stack of titles like “Communication Chair,” “Treasurer” or my favorite, “Historian.” These distinctions, however, served mostly as an indication of more work you assigned yourself in your free time. As “Historian” of my sorority, I created a back-of-the-toilet-stall weekly newsletter that listed out upcoming events, birthdays, and other random trivia.

This trend continued all the way through 2017, when I served as President of the Medill Club of NYC, the local alumni chapter for journalism school graduates of Northwestern. We’d organize quarterly events, happy hours, and panel discussions. I’d interface with faculty on campus and meet new alumni to the area. My biggest success as President was turning around the volunteer board by recruiting a half-dozen new faces around the table, many of whom are still there today.

While certainly impactful, all of these positions were less about sharing provocative ideas and more about getting things done. And I’ll assure you, I became excellent at getting things done.


Leaving tactics on the table

Flash forward to today, where I’m the youngest person on two different boards. And basically, I’m realizing these are the first *real* boards in my life I’ve ever been on. (But please don’t let them know that. I’m trying to play it cool here, okay?) And after digging more into the role, after seeing everybody else seated around the tables with me, after hearing echoes about “what a big deal” this kind of thing was from friends and colleagues alike, what happened next was a serious reality check: SHIT! What exactly am I supposed to be doing?!

This kind of “culture shock” has echoes for me of the transition one takes from being an individual contributor to being a manager at work. It’s quite common for the highest performing individual contributor (IC) to get promoted to manager. But of course, this doesn’t mean they will “crush it” the same way. How could they? The skillsets are completely different. As an IC, you derive all of your satisfaction and energy around getting things done yourself. As a manager, you relish in the collective success and output of the team around you.

It’s not a switch you can flip overnight. Morphing from “high personal output” mode to “high team output” mode is a slow and (often painful) process. There are dark periods where you might wonder, "Why am I here? How am I motivated? Why did I say yes to this? What am I supposed to do? Why can’t I just do it all myself?”

This is a little bit about how I've felt in the first couple of board meetings for both of these organizations: "What am I supposed to care about? What’s the thing I can do that offers the biggest impact? How can I show my value? Why am I in the room at all?”

I'm trying to fight the urge to "jump in and do something" whenever I hear a problem. Truly, this is difficult for me. Sometimes I feel like I need to handcuff myself to the table just to stop myself from raising my hand to volunteer for something. Sometimes in meetings I repeat this mantra to myself: "Don't leave with any homework...don't leave with any homework..." But I gotta tell you, it's easier said than done.


Lessons in leadership Last night, I attended two regional alumni board meetings as a drop-in visitor. It's no longer my role to run these meetings, or even to come up with new suggestions, as much as it is to listen. But I'm still feeling out what exactly that means. In each meeting, the respective Presidents asked me to share some updates from the broader university and Northwestern at large. Typically, this is the sort of thing that I would like to prepare slides in advance. I would share around some notes in writing, make sure everybody is crystal clear, and maybe even think up a few anecdotes to pepper the conversation. But I didn't have time for that this week. In fact, I didn't even have time to re-read my notes from the previous meeting to make sure I was capturing the right language in our strategic priorities. I was feeling a little guilty about this. What would it look like, I wondered, for the NAA board director to come into these two meetings unprepared? I decided to play it cool. In each meeting, I arrived a little early to chat with the leadership teams. Both of them at least appeared happy that I decided to join them. We caught up on what else was going on in their lives, holiday plans, and some work updates. During the meeting, I was introduced in each one with gusto that felt a little overzealous, but I just went with it. And when it came my turn to talk, without having prepared any formal notes or remarks, I just shared what I knew. I gave an overview from our last broader board meeting, I talked a bit about the transition plan, and I explained how we are hoping to better facilitate connections between clubs and the university at large. In one meeting, a topic came up that the other club had recently solved, so I facilitated a direct introduction from one volunteer leader to another. And then I left. No homework. No next steps. It felt a little bit like the greatest value I brought to the table was me showing up. And maybe that's the first lesson of what it takes to be an engaged member of a board. What else have you picked up along the way?

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