This paper investigates the association between board characteristics and shareholders' assessment of their exposure to economic and agency risks as reflected in the volatility of stock returns. Our hypotheses incorporate prior evidence that small and large firms have ‘dramatically’ different board structures, reflecting the firms' different monitoring and advising needs. We hypothesize and find evidence that only the shareholders of well-established large firms are able to generate positive net benefits, in the form of lower equity risk, from independent boards and well-connected independent directors with multiple directorships. We also find professional and formal industry degree qualifications on the board are associated with shareholders' risk assessment for some small firms consistent with the focus of small firms on building growth and scale. While we find evidence that formal industry professional affiliations (weak evidence) and MBAs provide benefits for the shareholders of large firms, there is limited evidence that financial expertise on the board systematically influences shareholders' risk assessments for small or large companies. The key conclusion from the evidence in this paper is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to governance in relation to the board of directors may not meet the diverse needs of companies at different stages of economic development.