Four Proven Ways to Deal with the “Problem” Board Member
From Challenge to Opportunity – Four Proven Ways to Deal with the “Problem” Board Member
“The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
“The challenge of leadership is to create and maintain trust.”
– Warren Bennis
It never fails! Every time I conduct a workshop, a board retreat, or any time there is a gathering of school or nonprofit CEOs and trustees (or, directors), someone always raises the question, “What do you do when you have a problem board member?” The “problem” usually takes one or more forms including, but not limited to; micro-managing, bullying, someone with an agenda, not engaged, ignores issues like confidentiality and conflict of interest, or rarely attends board or committee meetings. Occasionally this is the board member who works in secret, behind the scenes, to manipulate a particular scheme. Often the person raising the question is describing one or a small number on any given board. It should be noted that most governing board members do an excellent job in serving the school or organization and provide very capable leadership.
So what is the answer to this question and what type of strategic and intentional approach will turn this trustee from being part of the problem to being part of the solution? I believe that there are four ways to invoke genuine and meaningful change to the “problem” trustee.
The first way to approach this trustee is for the board chair and the trustee to have a meaningful one-on-one conversation about the issue. There is every possibility that this might be an unpleasant conversation. However, the board chair must demonstrate leadership by communicating directly with the trustee. While the conversation may not lead to a resolution, it will at least put this board member on notice that their behavior is not acceptable and being monitored by the chair.
The second way is to make use of board education. Board education is effective for many reasons and one is to illuminate best practices by providing examples and case studies as to what constitutes conduct that puts organization above self. A board retreat, workshop, or an orientation can reach board members in a way that does not specifically call into question their behavior. This process has a way of setting expectations and allows the board member to “see the light” anonymously and change before their conduct becomes a bigger issue.
The third way is having term limits clearly spelled out in the bylaws. For a variety of reasons it may not be advisable to confront a problem board member but rather allow their term to come to an end and not invite them back on the board. This is one of the reasons that having current and effective bylaws that articulate term limits are an effective management tool for trustees. Having term limits (often two consecutive three-year terms) allows the board to consistently be seeking out new board members who bring fresh perspective and insight. Having term limits is a much more proactive approach than simply allowing terms to be indefinite and hoping that the organization will find that trustee who is just so amazing there is no way he or she should be removed from the board. Indeed there are those occasions when there are trustees who have done such an amazing job we need to find a way to keep them engaged. If this is the case, create a board of advisors, or some other entity, and invite these individuals to join such groups as a strategy to continue their involvement.
The fourth, and in the long run, most effective manner to address problem board members is to not invite them on the board in the first place. Easier said than done? Yes – but if it were easy anyone could do it! The way in which this happens is by having a very dynamic and engaged committee on trustees. This standing committee of the board is charged with several critical responsibilities ensuring the school or nonprofit has the highest functioning governing board possible. The first responsibility is recruitment. Investing the time to properly identify prospective board members who can have an inspiring impact is time very well spent. Second, the committee must take the lead in facilitating an orientation session that trains new trustees about the organization AND communicates what is required to be a great trustee.
In addition to recruiting and training, the committee must also encourage board members to participate in professional development opportunities (conferences, workshops, retreats, etc.). Continuing education is the key to achieving and sustaining excellence. Finally, the committee must develop a way in which to measure board effectiveness. This process of evaluation and reflection will reveal strengths and weaknesses of the board.
A few board members can make a dramatic difference and derail a board that is otherwise providing effective and inspired leadership. These four ways give the board a realistic opportunity to defuse what can be a volatile situation. The mission of the school or nonprofit organization is too important to ignore the “problem” board member.