Sacrifice: How to Navigate Board Opportunities and Boundaries



Trusted to serve
by Tamara Paton in How to get on board, Motivation

As I write this, I’m en route to Vancouver for a board meeting. One of my favourite musicians, Stevie Nicks, happens to be visiting the city this weekend as well. I know this, because I have come thisclose to picking up a ticket to see her perform.

Despite the temptation, you won’t hear me belting out “Landslide” like the back-up singer I was meant to be. The short-term indulgence would be sweet, but attending the concert doesn’t fit into my bigger plan. A late night would make it tough to show up sharp for my board meeting. And I would surely hit snooze in lieu of the pre-dawn run I have planned tomorrow.

In short, fitness and professional goals trump 1970s rock ballads. No one said adulting is fun.

As desirable and rewarding as a board career can be, it carries sacrifice. All that effort directed to volunteering for pro bono projects, building one’s network, and investing in governance training must come from time that could be dedicated to other activities. Once on a board, directors soon realize that even paid roles don’t richly compensate for the effort and personal risk involved.

Every director weighs these demands against the alternatives: spending time with family, accelerating our trajectory in our day jobs, training for a marathon, or launching a side business. The remaining accomplishments on your bucket list compete against a board career. Career expert Bill Barnett summed it up nicely as, “People who always say yes to sacrifice take long-term risks. People who always refuse limit their opportunities.”

How do we evaluate these choices? How do we sacrifice one priority over another?

Seek and share information

My current pro bono board engagement illustrates my tendency to jump into new projects without understanding the commitment. When a very noble cause that is close to my heart asked for my help, I agreed on the spot. I should have paused, however, when it was clear that the organization didn’t really know what it needed. And I should have reflected on the amount of time I could share.

We often assume that we know the time, skills, and out-of-town travel associated with an opportunity. Too often, I have not been right in my assumptions, so I’m getting better at asking for details. And if you have a habit of regretting commitments like I do, it pays to ask for time to think before responding.

Be clear about what matters most to you

In my first few months in management consulting, a more tenured colleague gave me advice that I have repeated to myself and others for years. Brett Laschinger, now a leading healthcare executive, encouraged me to know exactly what I wanted from my work. If I dreamed of making partner, I would need to go the extra mile and then some. If I wanted a positive learning experience that would lead to other great work elsewhere, I could decline certain sacrifices.

With information and our values in hand, we can frame outcomes, ideally into short-term and more distant payoffs. The analysis gets interesting when we take an honest look at our deal-breaker priorities, especially the costs to be incurred in the near term.

Stay in your lane

When I’m tempted by a new opportunity, it’s often because I see it accruing success for a peer or mentor. Others seem so wildly successful climbing corporate ranks, writing a book, launching a speaking career, and joining YPO. Surely, I should want what they have and do everything that they do, right?

Spencer Lanthier did it” is not sufficient reason to pursue a path. I am not Spencer Lanthier and neither are you. Fortunately, we can find our own way at our own pace. Every day, I remind myself that comparison is the thief of joy.


Tomorrow morning, I’ll run along the Vancouver seawall in the wee hours preceding my meetings. If I time things just right, I might see Stevie Nicks stumbling back to her hotel, tired from an honest night’s work. Whatever twinge of regret I feel for missing her show will be soon forgotten. I’m on my own path and clear about the sacrifices that mark the miles.

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Sacrifice: How to Navigate Board Opportunities and Boundaries

by Tamara time to read: 3 min