"Best before ..." How long should a Board Member stay?
One of the commonest questions Founders discuss is the length of a board member's shelf-life. As a general guide, there's a good rule for management and boards that it's better to leave a year too early than stay a year too long.
However, I think there's a fundamental difference between how long a Chief Executive is likely to be in the role and how long a non-executive board member (who doesn't work there in a 'day job') should serve. When a CEO arrives in a new job, he or she will then eat, live and breathe it every day of the week, while a board member probably has contact with the business only a few times a month/quarter.
I may be a slow learner, but I find it usually takes a couple of years at least as a new board member to feel that I really understand the business and its issues, its strengths and its risks. It seems to me that so many organisations with term-limits of 2-4 years (whether formal or just habitual) are wasting enormous potential value: just as the board member is really starting to contribute, we get rid of them. I worked recently with one organisation that has a limit of two 1-year terms for their board members ... and they wonder why their board doesn't provide any real leadership!
The other consequence of these short-term appointments, if your board members never get the chance to become fully effective, is that the organisation will almost inevitably be dominated by the CEO, with few checks or restraints. Either that, or the CEO will get frustrated that the board members never really understand what's going on and therefore won't make decisions. I've seen both and they're both likely to end in tears, and at least one departure.