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How to Be the Perfect Corporate Board Member

Guru Len Roberts believes today's company directors play a big part in holding management accountable.
photography by Jason Janik

Len Roberts, chairman of the board of Texas Health Resources, has a simple philosophy about serving on boards of directors.

“The perfect board member practices the principle of NIFO—nose in, fingers out,” Roberts says. “It’s the job of management to run the business. The board is there to stick its nose into the business and make sure everything is according to plan,” without being too hands-on.

Roberts, the retired chairman and CEO of RadioShack Corp., has served on numerous boards during his career. In addition to Arlington-based Texas Health Resources, the largest hospital system in North Texas, he also currently serves on the boards of J.C. Penney and Rent-A-Center, both of which are based in Plano.

His two-year term as chairman of Texas Health Resources began in January.

“Board members are more important today than ever before,” he says. “Boards are responsible for some key areas of the enterprise, especially in terms of holding management accountable for results and for the execution of strategy.”

Roberts, who was elected to the National Retailing Hall of Fame in 2006, says nonprofit companies seeking board members typically target either retired or sitting CEOs, while for-profit companies usually aim mainly for sitting CEOs.

However, he adds, companies are finding it increasingly difficult these days to attract high-profile CEOs to their boards. “At one time, public-company boards encouraged their CEO to serve on other boards to get a different perspective,” Roberts says. “I’m not too sure that’s encouraged anymore because of the responsibilities and the time.”

But it’s exactly those different viewpoints that make serving on boards well worth the time and effort, he believes. “As the [former] CEO of three public companies [Shoneys and Arby’s, along with RadioShack], I always encouraged senior management to go on outside boards in order for them to get valuable and different perspectives,” Roberts says.

So what advice does he have for retired or retiring CEOs considering serving on a board today?

“Make sure that it is a company that truly believes in the role of a highly engaged board,” Robert says, “because there’s nothing more boring to me than sitting around a table being ‘presented to,’ without the management team trying to leverage the valuable expertise around a board table.”

And, don’t forget NIFO.