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Benefit from boards

Serving on a board can bring personal gains

This spring marks the end of my term as president of the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation, and the end of my time on that board.

The federation counts ag journalists and communications professionals among its ranks. The Federation offers several interesting professional development opportunities to members. It also has an annual awards program and financial support for members to attend relevant conferences and events.

When you’re considering seeking a nomination to a board, you might be weighing the required commitment against what you can realistically contribute. But it’s also worth thinking about what you’ll personally gain from being on a board or council

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I’m not talking about a chance to favour your friends with contracts, or harass your hated neighbour through bylaws. Don’t do those things. Nepotism sucks.

I’m talking about the knowledge and experience you can gain from being on a board, especially a high-functioning one.

What I learned

The Farm Writers’ board was always well-prepared for meetings, and our Secretariat, which includes Hugh Maynard and Christina Franc, deserve a heap of credit in that regard. Lining up the ducks beforehand makes for a smoother meeting. Hugh has been the secretary-treasurer for several years. That experience and knowledge is a huge asset to the board, and to the organization.

I inherited the presidency from Tamara Leigh, a communications professional from British Columbia. Tamara has a real talent for listening, and for making sure that everyone has a chance to be heard in a meeting.

That’s important because everyone at any given meeting had something to contribute. It’s good to have robust discussions, to consider all the angles, to avoid group think. I think that’s something our board managed to do quite consistently.

Of course, a robust discussion doesn’t mean a screaming match. Many years ago, I was invited to seek a position on a volunteer board that shall remain unnamed.

I went to one meeting. During that meeting, one board member literally stood over the executive director, yelling at her and pointing his finger in her face. It was a heated meeting, to say the least. At the end, that same board member shook my hand and said something like, “Look forward to sparring with you.”

“Nope,” I thought. I didn’t join.

I’m not sure where boards like that start to go wrong. But I think with strong boards, there’s a sense that how people treat each other is important. That culture allows people to disagree, or perhaps play devil’s advocate, without it becoming a personal attack.

How we treat people is important for many reasons. But when I think back to that dysfunctional board I was asked to join, I wonder if they realized they were likely making terrible decisions because they couldn’t get along.

Every board is going to face tough decisions. The best decision isn’t always going to be immediately obvious, and will require discussion. If you don’t trust your fellow board members, or you’re worried you’re going to get screamed at for disagreeing, you might not bring up an important point. Respect and trust are vital to that process.

How to run better meetings, the importance of every board member, how to discuss issues, how to think through the outcomes of a decision… none of this seems like rocket science. It borders on common sense. Yet it’s something we have to learn. I learned a good deal from my fellow board members at the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation, and for that I thank them.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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