A chap in my local community is one of those salt-of-the-earth types who is a part of every community organisation. Name a community group or local initiative and he’s part of it. We’re only a small community, yet his days (and evenings) not to mention weekends are filled with meetings, working bees and the like.

I’ve known this gent for 25 years and in that time I must have heard him say his favourite saying a million times. Whenever someone around him comments about the small proportion of local residents who seem to come up over and over in community groups he’s want to say:

If you want something done, ask a busy person…

I’ve been thinking about this quote recently, since seeing a comment on LinkedIn from Kirsten Patterson. Now KP as she is affectionately known is a busy person herself. She’s the CEO of the Institute of Directors, the professional body in New Zealand for those who, like myself, sit on boards for a living. It’s an arcane sort of a trade, and one which isn’t easily understood. Fortunately, my old mate MoD and I write about it a lot to try and educate those to whom governance is a mystery.

Anyway, KP recently made a comment on LinkedIn, opining on the topic of overboarding. For those who haven’t heard the term, overboarding is the word to describe board members who are perceived as having more board roles than is wise. The theory goes that it is impossible for someone with many board roles to be sufficiently aware of what is going on in all those different organisations. KP commented that:

A director being under-boarded (only having 1 board role) can be just as bad as someone over-boarded (having lots of board roles)”

The way KP sees it, there is something really positive to be gained by board members serving on boards across different industries, sectors, organisation sizes and types. This varied experience allows board members to share various approaches across these different sectors.

KP’s comment got me thinking. I am a bit of a governance geek anI feel incredibly lucky to have found what feels to me like the perfect vocation for me. I intend for governance to be my vocation for the rest of my days. I wake up every morning absolutely pumped to attend whatever meetings I have that day. This excitement means that I am generally open to new governance roles and, accordingly, at any one time I have a governance portfolio that some naysayers might say is too much.

I don’t think it’s as simple as a number beyond which governors are overboarding and my reasons are varied.

Governance is about pattern-matching

I’ve served on 20 or 30 boards in my time and, across all of those organisations, I’ve observed that governance issues generally come down to a very small number of root causes – they’re almost always about people, culture, process or systems. All of those factors are complex and practitioners gain insights and data points from the more experience they have across different boards.

Essentially, governance is about matching patterns that one has observed previously to a current situation and responding accordingly. Thus the more contemporary situations one observes, the more likely one is to have an appropriate solution in one’s quiver.

Absorbing and synthesizing data is key

I’m no genius, indeed if you look at my (lack of) qualifications, you’d question my suitability for doing much. One thing I did inherit from my parents is the ability to read, absorb and synthesize information quickly. If there is one trait that I have observed across the directors I respect (beyond humility, compassion, collaboration etc) it is the ability to read those hundreds and hundreds of pages of board papers, to discern which are the two or three key issues, and to consider varied solutions to those problems.

Now for some people, the reading of board packs is a real drag and takes up a huge amount of time. But like so many other factors in life, this varies across the individual. While one person might take all day to read and understand 500 pages of board papers, another might be able to achieve a similar result in only a few hours. For the former individual, more than a couple of board positions might be too much. For the latter one, half a dozen chunky roles would be fine.

Organisations have a lifecycle

There’s an old saying in governance circles that suggests that 90% of the time board members are just ticking boxes but that the other 10% of the time is when we do the really hard work that justifies our role. Every organisation has existential crises that require board members to step up and spend lots of time on them.

But it is unusual for these “Black Swan Events” to all happen at the same time. I’ve generally got two or three organisations in my portfolio that need me to invest significant time in them, but the others are running smoothly and hence don’t require hours of toil.

That old saying again

As readers will know, I’m a bit of a runner. Ultramarathons being my event of choice. I spend 15-30 hours a week running in the hills or on the pavements, generally by myself. Those hours are excellent times to cogitate on the various things going on in the organisations I’m involved with. While I don’t have a day job, I’ve got a bunch of different things going on but I find that being busy keeps me sharp, motivated and happy. I’m certain that having a bunch of board roles actually makes me more effective than if I had less.

People are different, but one thing my neighbour proves is that busy people have a huge capacity to absorb work. Maybe they spend less time in front of the TV, maybe they don’t sleep in so often. WHatever the reason, if you want something done, it’s not a bad idea to ask a busy person.



Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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