Does Your Board Need the Outsider Perspective?

By: Summer Mandell

Consider whether the clearest view of your organization may come from outside your industry.

When the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE) revamped its governance structure in 2008, one of its new initiatives was to invite people from outside the catering industry to join the board of directors. Since 2009, three at-large board positions have been reserved for these so-called outsiders, who serve one-year terms but can remain board members for up to two years.

"Instead of looking just at our own organization and where we've been, we wanted to have completely different views to learn how other organizations do things, to learn where we could be stronger and where we could do a better job," says Bonnie Fedchock, executive director of NACE.

Adding outsider board members was "a bit scary for some of our leaders" because they weren't sure how someone with little or no knowledge of the catering industry would fit into the board's culture, Fedchock says. But at the same time, the board was prepared to make changes and was open to the potentially unflattering insights that might come from an outsider perspective.

"Where were we completely off the mark? Where were we not focused correctly? The board really was willing to take that," she says. "It could've been perceived as an attack on where we've been as an organization, but [board members] were prepared for somebody to come in and say, 'Oh my gosh, you're doing this all wrong.'"

NACE President Greg Casella, CPCE, says the outsider perspective has advantages. "We are able to get a clear view of issues we are confronting from someone who does not know the history of individuals in NACE or [its] chapters," Casella says. "Having outsiders has actually forced us to think strategically—long term—instead of dealing with issues that are not really a function of the board, and it has really brought us to the next level."

Often, at-large board members are sought out because they have an area of expertise that might be helpful for NACE initiatives or they come from an organization or field that aligns with NACE and its values. For example, Lisa H. Kislak, director of marketing for Academic Partnerships, is a current at-large board member with expertise in marketing, which the NACE board wants to tap into while it considers how its brand is perceived and whether it should adopt a new branding strategy.

While Fedchock says she was able to identify for Kislak how the NACE board could use her experience, this wasn't easy for all at-large members at first.

"We brought them onto the board without giving them a good history and any direction as to what we wanted from them," says Casella, "but we have realized now we can benefit most by making their roles more project based."

Another challenge for adding outside-industry board members is making them feel included in the group. The NACE board uses a buddy system in which experienced board members are paired with at-large members to provide guidance and answer questions. At-large members also have a dedicated spot on all meeting agendas and are asked to provide updates on their projects or special events.

One final lesson Fedchock says NACE learned is to define what the board wants to accomplish with its outsider members rather than who it wants to add. When selecting at-large members in the future, NACE will outline five projects for the coming year and then find the best people who can contribute to those initiatives, she says.

Having an outsider perspective has helped NACE come up with new ways to think about its work, and Fedchock says she is proud of how her board has adapted.

"Board members really like the opportunity to meet these people that they wouldn't have necessarily met. It gives them some opportunity to stretch themselves professionally, too," she says. "I think the first year it was a little uncomfortable … but now I think it's one of the best things we've done."

—Summer Mandell