At a Glance
The panel puts forward flexible standards for assessing how much board involvement is too much. They agree that the answer depends heavily from director to director, especially because different boards entail different amounts of engagement and work.
My reaction is that we should be very careful not to set arbitrary limits for the number of boards a director can serve on. People have different things going on in their business and personal lives, some are no longer employed full time, some boards require different time commitments. Imposing a numerical limit can’t take these factors into account, so setting an arbitrary limit would be very misguided.
This is both a personal and a professional question. My litmus test is ensuring that for each of my boards I can give 100% of what I believe makes someone a great board member. The work level demanded by any given board varies based on the culture, how many times it’s in crisis, and what you’re expected to contribute. For that reason, it’s harder to join several boards all at once. It’s best to start with one or two, and once you have that under control and understand the rhythm of the board, then you can add another depending on whatever else you’re doing. The personal aspect comes in when you decide how much you’re willing to give to board service altogether.
I’ve been very aware of this question in my own circumstances. It’s too simple to say something like “four is too many” or “only chair two.” The answer comes down to the individual’s capability – how quick they are in absorbing the information provided to them, how effective they are at addressing issues that come up, and their experience with the company or industry. Career experience is particularly relevant. I’ve always found it easier to absorb papers and think strategically and laterally about issues as a director at companies where I have deep business or industry knowledge. I’ve also seen an issue when an unforeseen merger, takeover, or competition threat comes up and that board becomes more time consuming than anticipated. In some circumstances, if two companies were in major discussions or crises, two board memberships could be very difficult to manage.
The current phase of business cycles that we are in right now is unique. We’re going through an industrial revolution and that doesn’t occur very often. Digitalization is impacting just about every industry and demanding more time. Boards must consider challenges from disruptors, changes in process, mergers and acquisitions, and other digitalization related issues, and many directors must take time to upskill in this area. The digitalization demand isn’t just for growth of the company, it’s for survival. All of that makes each directorship more time consuming and challenging. Don’t just factor in the time to attend board meetings when considering this question, think also about the additional hours for continuous education, crisis management, and other potential externalities that can arise.
There are benefits to serving on several boards at once – it’s incredibly synergistic. You can share expertise across companies, see the function of two or three compensation committees instead of just one, and do pattern matching. For me, there are three signs: if I don’t have enough time to digest the board materials, if I don’t have time for continuous learning particularly around the numerous disruptions happening concurrently (e.g. machine learning, artificial intelligence), or if it was really difficult for management to schedule time with me. I’m a full-time board member and if any of those three things gave, that would be a problem.
Laurie is a Board Member and Strategic Advisor at Zoox, and serves on the Board of Directors of Bose Corporation, Church & Dwight Co., Inc., and Noon Home. Additionally, she was a Director on the founding Board of Directors of Tesla.
Eugenia is currently a member of the board of directors at Signet Jewelers, Hudson Group, Bunzel Plc, and Vince Holding Corp. She has also served as a board member of Women In Need and WomensForumNY, and was a Trustee at Burberry Foundation.
Leslie serves on the Boards of Directors of AGL Energy Ltd. And Adelaide Brighton Ltd., where he was the board chair from 2012-2018. He has previously served on the boards of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), The Carbon Market Institute, and Innovation Australia.
Nora is currently a member of the Board of Directors at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Ericsson, and Talend SA, as well as a member of the Innovation Advisory Board at BBVA. She has previously served on a number of boards including Saba Software, Overland Storage, TimeSpring, YWCA of Silicon Valley.