Walking into the room of a board meeting — or council meeting — after you are elected is a weighty moment.
I served on several national boards in my industry. One was mainly governance and contracts, while the other was all fiduciary health and retirement work. It was a huge learning curve for me.
After serving some 20 years on both, though not at the same time, I look back at things that meant a lot to me and gave me comfort.
Remaining quiet for the first several months in order to learn what the heck is going on and who the staff are and what they do took up a lot of my bandwidth.
Of course in town elections people know more about who’s on first, but it’s helpful to take some time to feel just how you fit in on this train that is going at 60 mph when you jump on. Perception of how things are often have to meet reality pretty quickly.
One of the things I was grateful for was a training session I attended on how to be a trustee of a health and retirement plan. Being a fiduciary, working with the money that other people count on you to manage well on their behalf, is not only a great responsibility, but it is covered by specific law, and those are good laws to make friends with. Not doing so can lead to trouble.
Whether you are on the board of a nonprofit or the council of a town, laws govern your responsibilities and act like fences to keep you on track for your purpose.
The purpose, goals, charters and mission statements are meant to aid members, be they new or long-serving. Knowing what the family tree or chain of command is for any organization actually is very liberating, because you know who to turn to and where to push ideas you want acted on.
Boards and councils need to work more like streetcar tracks than freeways. Streetcars have set movements and cannot stray off the track very easily. They inevitably get to the center of their district and are sent out again to do their run.
Freeways allow people to run up your tailpipe, change lanes and in general speed into action whether it be safe or not. This is not a good model for any governance.
Knowing the “tree’ of the organization supports open discussion with deliberate action placed in the correct “track.”
It is so easy to jump the track with creative energy and even well-meaning action, but knowing the line that things must move upon saves a lot of energy and resentment.
If you are steeped in the charter, goals, mission statement; if the group discusses openly the ideas that are presented; and if the committee chairs hold to their brief, well, life is a lot simpler.
Have an idea that is not in your committee? Take it to the one who heads the committee that the idea belongs in, work with the structure and not against it.
One of the most effective rules we had was only one person spoke at a time and sidebars were meant to be seeking quiet guidance from a lawyer or staff — they were not to undermine the speaker or discussion. Being respectful of time and your fellow board members pays big dividends when you need support.
With local elections now behind us, and as volunteer boards look to the end of the year, now is the perfect time to be taking a moment to reflect on how best to manage being in such a group — who handles this sort of thing best.
Trying to get a year’s worth of work done on a small volunteer board is not a lot easier than working on a council when it comes to dynamics.
As much fun and delight as can be found in service to an organization or town, it is still a job of work. The need for careful thought, preparation and consideration, being open to the opinions of others who likely have little idea of the workings of the organization but who you also serve — these are tough things to do.
Clinging to the structure of the tree of the organization, to the laws that govern your work and being open and fair take you a long way on the rocky ship of doing good for your town. It sounds simple, but it is not always easy.
Plant a tree of organization wherever you serve and it will grow and prosper.
Joyce Reehling lives in Pinehurst. She retired here from New York after a 33-year career in theater, TV and commercials.