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Finding a seat on the board

People who want to be board directors should harness their passion and interest to find the right fit on industry and community boards and committees.  |  Getty Images photo

How does someone begin to become a board member? Start at the top, said Trish Tetz, an agricultural manager for the Bank of Montreal.

“In my experience, one of the very best ways that you can learn about a board is by speaking with a director,” she said during the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference held online last month.

“If that goes well and you’re really intrigued, call the executive director. Ask to sit down for a coffee and just quiz them.

“The executive director is hands-on. They’re way more into the nitty gritty daily impacts of what happens and they see the results of decisions that the board makes. So they are an incredible resource for somebody you want to talk to if you’re thinking about getting involved on a specific board,” said Tetz.

“Talk to them about what that board does, their main roles, what the typical meeting looks like, where are these meetings held, what are the expectations on you as a director, are there spaces available on that board if you did want to join, how do you go about joining, who’s going to nominate you.”

From the pasture on her family’s ranch near Three Hills, Alta., Tetz discussed ways to help women advance as leaders in their sectors through various board positions.

She spoke of the role of women on boards, including insights into getting started.

“I hear a lot about women who want to join boards or committees in their local area and there’s a lot of things that kind of stop you from wanting to take that on. It might be a confidence thing. It might be timing in your life. It might be being unsure of what you bring to the table and how you can benefit these organizations and the producers or your communities.”

Tetz is no stranger to boards or committees with experience as a director and committee member for several organizations.

She is currently serving on the Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society, also known as Cows and Fish, which addresses the impact of cattle on the environment while improving riparian areas and fish habitats.

“It’s something that I really love. I’m really passionate about it. We’ve been really trying to do regenerative agriculture on our ranch as well. So Cows and Fish was a very natural fit for me,” she said.

Before this, she was a board director with Youth HQ in Red Deer.

She also sits on several committees, including the dairy show committee for Westerner Park in Red Deer.

“Again, something I’m really passionate about. I love dairy cows, I love dairy farming. I didn’t grow up in the show circuit, so that’s been a learning curve for me, actually,” she said.

Indeed, passion and interest are cornerstones, Tetz said, and want-to-be directors should harness that to find the right fit on industry and community boards and committees.

“One thing that I feel always rings true, whether it’s in a work environment, a board or committee environment, is if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. And I really do feel like that when it’s something that you go into and you’re very interested in and passionate about, it is so much easier to take part in that board and be an effective leader on that board,” she said.

She said potential candidates should answer key questions before committing to a board:

  • What are the expectations of a director?
  • How many hours a week or a month are required?
  • How often are the board meetings and special meetings?
  • Is this a paid or a volunteer position?
  • What costs are covered?
  • What types of committees are currently in place on those boards that you might want to participate in?
  • Is there any travel involved and can meetings be done by Zoom?

These are all fair and reasonable questions that one should ask upfront without feeling uncomfortable.

“If you’re sitting down with the director or the executive director, you can say, walk me through what a typical meeting agenda is. What are some topics that you guys discuss on a monthly basis? What are some unique challenges that the board is facing,” she said.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of how much time a potential director or committee member can commit to, as well as making sure it matches one’s lifestyle and expectations.

“The other directors are also contributing and you want to match their contributions. (In a lot of cases) you also have employees, and those employees are dependent on the decisions that are made by the board. And so you really want to be there. You want to take part and you want to keep those people in mind,” she said.

There are several steps to prepare for a new board position:

  • Learn about the industry from a local and global perspective, particularly “hot topics” which can quickly change and impact the board.
  • Be informed about what’s going on, such as community events and politics, particularly for humanitarian boards.
  • Be open-minded. Go into a position with the goal of contributing and learning the different perspectives on issues.

“People have laughed at me in the past, but I always say that for the first year of sitting on a board, I basically don’t have an opinion. I sit there and I listen to the conversations. I listen to the different perspectives and if I do have something to say, I am thoughtful and tactful about it,” she said.

  • Be respectful and empathetic.

“It’s OK to be wrong and it’s OK to not agree with everybody else on that board or that committee, but you really do need to have that open-mindedness to see their perspective and to empathize with it. And that is going to make you such a wonderful director or committee member,” she said.

  • While it may not be mandatory, consider taking a director course.

“Governance is a huge topic and it can also carry some liability. So be informed about what your liabilities are… if you’re unsure about what those commitments might be, or you’re unsure about the liability of them, or if you just want to build some confidence in your own skills as a director, that’s a fantastic way to do it,” she said.

While most opportunities happen by seeking them, be prepared for the quiet invite.

“We might not even know that we’re being considered for something until someone taps us on the shoulder and says, ‘hey, would you be interested here?’ And that’s a great compliment. When people do that it’s usually very thoughtful and they’ve already met and talked with other directors and said, ‘what do you think about this person?’ ” she said.

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