How to “Rightsize” Your Board

Performance is a matter of having the right people on a board, as well as the right number of people. Some boards are too big, bloated with an accumulation of members who, while respected, may no longer fulfill important governance responsibilities. In too many organizations, membership is a matter of privilege and prestige—based on who people know rather than what they know. Term limits are not enforced, leading to excess.

In other organizations, a board might be too thin. The membership roster might seem appropriate or typical, but is it enough to encompass the breadth of strategic priorities that a firm or organization has?

In other words, boards must be the right size for their charge. We recommend “right-sizing” as a regular, healthy activity that all boards should engage in. Right-sizing doesn’t have to mean a culling of the herd or complete restructuring of the board. In many cases, it can serve to validate a board’s current composition, enabling tweaks to an already high-performing body of individuals.

How is it done? Here are some basic elements of preparing for and executing a board rightsizing:

1. Assess member skills. The skill sets of board members may not align with the current and future strategic needs of the organization. Through skills assessment, the board can identify gaps and overlaps that may be inhibiting its effectiveness.

2. Push members outside their comfort zones. Develop skills and abilities of current board members through stretch assignments and serving on committees where they learn and grow. Before any reshuffling takes place, can current members fill strategic gaps and needs with support?

Jim Gauss is chairman of the Board Services practice at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. He has more than three decades of experience advising board members and CEOs on best practices in governance, leadership transition and succession planning. Monica Burton is a consultant for Witt/Kieffer, based in the firm’s New York office. She has led C-suite searches and has a particular interest in recruitment and succession planning for governing boards.