When is the best time to step down as a non-executive board member?

If you sit on boards as a non-executive director, then you definitely know how much you value your time. Perhaps you are a professional director or, like many of the Future Directors community, you have a day job plus one or more non-executive board roles that you do largely in your ‘spare time’….if there is such a thing these days.

It’s hard work and requires time and energy. You are there to serve others. You lend your skills, expertise and experience to discussions, decisions and strategies. You also (hopefully) care deeply about your work.

Alas, this is not always the case and, for whatever reason, directors can find themselves thinking a combination of the following:

Should I step down? How should I leave? When is the right time?

So, how do you tell if you should be stepping down from the board and what should you do about it?

1) YOU HAVE LITTLE TIME TO COMMIT

Undoubtedly, this is usually the most obvious reason to leave. If you are struggling to do more than just attend meetings and (sort of) read the papers, you are perhaps not doing your best job. If you are missing meetings, or turning up late then it’s time to consider your ability to commit. Is there someone else that could give more.

2) YOU DON’T EVEN READ THE BOARD PAPERS

This could be a lack of commitment or a lack of time. Yes, board papers can be long and overly detailed, but unless you have prepared properly, you’re likely going to waste everyone’s time. You might have had a good point to raise but weren’t sure if it was in the papers, so failed to ask. It could have changed everything but you had to that director!

3) YOU DREAD THE BOARD MEETINGS

If you don’t enjoy going to work isn’t it time to go elsewhere, or at least ask yourself why? Is it something you can take responsibility for and change? If not, I recommend finding a board where you cannot wait for your next interaction.

4) YOU ARE NOT DEVELOPING RELATIONSHIPS

Relationships are vital. You don’t need to be best friends with your fellow directors, nor like all of them, but you should know what makes them tick. According to Future Directors faculty Alison Rowe, fostering relationships outside the boardroom is perhaps the most important role of a director. It’s also important that a board spends time socialising away from boardroom. If you simply cannot be bothered, well….

5) YOU GET EASILY DISTRACTED DURING MEETINGS

Technology is a wonderful thing, but also very distracting. Now that boards are moving into the 21st century with software to enhance their effectiveness it’s easy to check your emails, on the side. No one will notice right? If you are distracted, you are not engaged and, if you are not engaged, then why are you there?

6) YOU DON’T WHERE THINGS ARE HEADED

This could take a variety of forms. For example, you disagree with the direction or decisions of the organisations. Perhaps you don’t trust the chair or it’s for other deeply personal or ethical reasons.

The latter is a hot topic right now. As directors you are collectively responsible for the decisions you make as a board. If you don’t agree with particular decisions, you are still responsible for them. If your feelings are strong enough, should you step down? That depends on what you might be willing to compromise. If it’s illegal, that’s a whole other story but largely it comes down to a clash of values.

Trust is everything in the boardroom. If you don’t trust others or others don’t trust you….

7) YOU AREN’T ADDING ANYTHING TO THE GROUP

Every director should contribute to the boardroom experience. If you are not, then perhaps you no longer have value to add. Boards evolve and if you’ve been there for a long time and/or were brought on for a particular reason, then it could be time to move on. You simply could be surplus to requirements.

In my own board career, I once stepped down because I felt my expertise was no longer needed and I also had opportunities elsewhere that were a better fit. It was hard to leave but I knew that the team needed a new chair and some fresh talent.

It’s not easy to step down from a board role. You often need to check your ego at the door and think of the bigger picture. If you are good director you do that naturally but if it’s a paid role it can make the decision harder.

IF IT’S TIME TO GO, WHAT DO YOU DO?

  1. It’s up to you, but my advice would be to check the rules first. The company constitution is the best starting point. How and when can you step down? Did you commit to a full term?
  2. If there are no organisational barriers to stepping down, then the next step is to chat with the chair. What you don’t want to do is surprise people during a meeting with an announcement or have them be the last to know. Best to talk about your reasons and plan together how you can make your exit as painless as possible.
  3. Depending on the needs of you and the board it could be best that you leave immediately or stage your exit over a few months to ensure there is a smooth transition to perhaps a new director. Not every board has the same processes and it will largely depend on the reasons for leaving.

Whatever route you choose, board positions were not meant to be forever. There always needs to a semi-regular refresh of memberships. There is also nothing wrong with moving on early if it’s done with mutual respect. Yes, there is an expectation that you’ll commit for a good amount of time, and this depends on what expectations were set when you joined, but once you’ve hit this mark it’s on you to make the right choice for the people you serve – you, your family, your board, your organisation and the stakeholders it serves.

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