What Do Parenting and Sitting on a Board of Directors Have in Common?

The transition from engineering leader, manager, or individual contributor to board director involves a significant mental shift — one that can be understood through a practical analogy.

By Lynda Grindstaff, F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board

spot illustration hands on keyboard

Do you aspire to be on a public or private board of directors one day? Maybe you have risen through the ranks and have decided to add “board director” to your resume? No matter where you are in your board journey, how do you make the mental transition to be a successful board member versus a leader/manager/individual contributor — and what does this have to do with parenting? I’ll get to the parenting similarities shortly, but first, let’s do a comparison.

Let’s compare a high-level list of board member responsibilities with those of an engineering leader:

Board member responsibilities

  • Determine the nonprofit or for-profit organization’s mission and purpose
  • Provide oversight, guidance, and recommendations to the organization
  • Hire, retain, dismiss, and evaluate performance for CEO; advise other C-suite executives
  • Approve organization-wide budgets
  • Ensure the executive team manages resources effectively and has effective organizational planning activities
  • Monitor the company’s/organization’s products, services, and programs
  • External advocate for the company/organization

Engineering leader responsibilities

  • Execute the company’s mission and purpose
  • Make strategic recommendations, report out, and run day-to-day operations
  • Hire, retain, dismiss, and evaluate performance for direct staff employees
  • Execute within the approved budget
  • Execute the company’s strategic vision
  • Produce the company’s products, services, and programs
  • External advocate for the company

As you can see from the list, being a board member is more of a coaching and guiding role rather than executing. This isn’t to say that engineering leaders do not coach, but the board focuses on the big picture rather than on one or two specifics. In other words, boards of directors are looking at the entire organization, whereas an engineering leader may be looking at only one business unit, a few services, or a product.

Making a mental shift through a practical analogy

Going back to the relationship between parenting and sitting on a board. The analogy holds true if you think back to when you were a child or, if you are a parent, when your children were young. In this example, the parent is the board of directors and the child is the engineering leader. The parent can probably do the children’s schoolwork faster and more efficiently than the child, for the most part, but they don’t. Instead, they approve their spending budget (allowance), monitor their progress (report card and teacher conferences), and provide advice as needed. They also coach, guide, and cheer from the sidelines. The children execute their homework, produce new projects, obtain their grades, and focus on passing their classes. All of this is very similar to how the relationship between the board of directors and the organizational engineering leaders works: Organizational leaders execute the day-to-day operations, while the board members provide oversight and guidance to the company.

The shift in mindset you make as a board member is stepping away from running the business into coaching, guiding, and steering the business. It may be hard to do at first as many of us are accustomed to being part of the day-to-day operations.

Individual leaders may not do things as you would, just as children may not do things exactly as their parents. As a board member, it’s important to trust the company’s or organization’s leadership team to help steer them in the right direction for all.

Anyone can sit on a board of directors as long as they provide value to the company or organization. If sitting on a board interests you, don’t assume you’re not qualified if you aren’t at an executive level. Both nonprofit and for-profit organizations are looking for people who bring specific skill sets, viewpoints, and visions — not just titles — to their boards. Be sure to check out the upcoming SWE Magazine conference issue, where I will discuss how to promote your SWE experience in a way that is useful for company boards.

Lynda Grindstaff, F.SWE, is a vice president of engineering with McAfee. An active SWE Fellow and senior life member, she is the past chair of the editorial board and has been recognized by the Society as an Emerging Leader and Prism Award recipient.


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