How to be a valuable asset on your company’s board

Are you the next generation of your family’s business? Do you currently serve on a board or want to serve on a nonprofit board? If it’s the latter, why do you serve? Are you an effective board member? Perhaps you would like to do more for the organization but can’t seem to make the time.

I have been serving on boards since I was just 15 years old and currently sit on six, which gives me a unique perspective, I believe, to weigh in on the right way and the wrong way to perform in that capacity. Many of the things I have learned were the result of trial and error, and if I can save even one person from heading down a wayward path, it will be worth it. Here’s some humble advice honed from years of both missteps and successes:

Show up: Making a commitment means obeying your calendar. If you don’t show, the rest of the board will notice, and its impression of you and what you bring to the table will be affected. If you’re asked to consider joining a board, here’s an idea: ask if they can share with you ahead of time all the dates and times of the meetings you’ll be expected to attend over the coming year. It makes for a fewer cancelations.

Be prepared: Read the board packet before the meeting. Plot questions ahead of time. When I started bringing a three-ring binder into my board meetings with my questions highlighted, the rest of the board made it a point to compliment me on my preparation. People notice when you are ready to get to work. 

Go all in: Are you passionate about the mission of the boards on which you serve? Share that passion with the greater community. Invite friends to attend events with you. Be a raving fan of the organization on social media platforms.

You’re more than a name: Don’t just give your name to the organization — give your all. You are smart and talented and will be expected to weigh in and perform at a high level. Anyone can be a wallflower, stand out and lead.

Learn how to say ‘no’ graciously: Don’t be afraid to disagree, abstain from voting and go against the grain because you don’t agree. Have good reasons to disagree and explain your reasons.

And regarding how thin you spread yourself, here’s some advice from a friend and second-generation president of an international manufacturing company: “If you say ‘yes’ to everything, then your schedule will eventually say ‘no’ for you.” For me, serving on two or three boards where I can really serve and be effective would be ideal. I wish I had this advice before I said “yes” too many times.

Be polite:  As a board member, always respond to email correspondence addressed to the board. If the organization sends the board an email with valuable content in it, respond with a “thank you.”

Read the financials: Don’t shy away from saying things like, “Tell me about these numbers.” Too many organizations spiral out of control because no one explored the fine print that spelled its demise months or years before. Look for warning signs and call them out. It’s part of the job.

Be a positive force: Nobody likes a Pollyanna, but look for the silver linings. Expose what’s working, if it’s warranted. Congratulate people on programs that survive and thrive. And whenever you can, serve the organization not only as a board member but an ambassador.

Want to share your own insights? Have a suggestion for the above list? Email me at

Ellie Frey Zagel is the director of the Family Business Alliance ( and third-generation vice chair of the Frey Foundation (

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