Dani Robbins

Board Disengagement in Four Scenes

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on January 28, 2014 at 9:34 am

I received a call from a old friend who served on the board of a very prominent organization. This is the story she told me. I share it with you (with permission) to illustrate both how important it is to institute and follow good process and how easy it is to disengage good board members.

Scene 1: The Invitation

The call came inviting my friend to serve on a very high profile board. She was a little surprised yet also very excited. She asked about expectations; she asked about commitment; she asked about orientation. She received what she considered to be reasonable answers, and was told that a lunch to answer all her questions would be set. She said yes.

The lunch was never set. She was voted on the Board. The orientation was never held. She attended a retreat that set committee goals for the year.

Scene 2:  Year 1, Chairmanship

My friend was asked to serve as a committee chair and began immediately working to build a committee and meet the goals from the retreat. Every suggestion she made was shot down by the executive director. Every recommendation the committee made, with the executive director in the room, was challenged – and sometimes later changed – by the executive director. My friend, who talked to the executive director every time it happened, got to the point that she realized she was spending significant political capital, and consistently alienating the executive director, who had also been a friend, to accomplish something that no one else wanted. She finished her one year term as chair and gave up the role.

She thought the executive director was so happy to have her out of the role that it never occurred to him to ask why. It’s possible the remainder of the executive committee felt the same way; they didn’t ask either.

Scene 3: Year 2, Gamesmanship

My friend continued to attend board meetings, missing only one or two, yet every suggestion she made in the room, usually based on best practices in the field, was challenged by members of the executive committee. The suggestions she offered were later introduced by other committees as their own work.

My friend felt alienated and disillusioned, and while she loved the organization, she didn’t love her experience in governing it.

Scene 4: Year 3, Disengagement

The next retreat was set and a board survey was sent out. She was honest with her concerns and her experience. She shared that she was troubled that the board didn’t have a strategic plan and hadn’t set any goals for the executive director. She shared that it felt like the organization was governed by a select few and the rest of the board were just in the room. She voiced her concerns within the bounds of the survey questions.

The retreat agenda came out; it didn’t reflect any of the issues she raised. My friend described it as a meeting to set strategies for a goal that did not exist, or at a minimum had not been communicated.

She continued to attend board meetings and participate marginally. A few months before her term expired she sent a note thanking the executive committee for the opportunity and asking to not be considered for a 2nd term.

She may be one of the few board members in the history of this high profile organization, with its high profile board, who declined a second term.

No one asked why.

The Scenes that Didn’t Happen

My friend didn’t share her frustrations outside of her conversations with the executive director when she was a committee chair and inside the boardroom. She did share her suggestions within the boardroom but (possibly inaccurately) felt from the responses she got to her ideas that there would be nothing to gain from sharing her frustrations.

The executive director, with whom she did meet occasionally, never asked her how she was enjoying her term.  There was no conversation about her goals for service and if those goals had been met.

The board chair never called to check in. Neither did the board development chair.  There was no assessment of her service or to gauge her opinion of board process.

The Lessons for the Rest of Us:

Board disengagement happens while good, dedicated, people are focused on other things. It’s rarely intentional, and quite detrimental. It’s what stands in the way of our boards, and therefore our agencies, fulfilling our missions, which would be more easily accomplished if everyone was on point, on the team and moving the organization forward.

There are a few ways to avoid it.

Talk to your board members – the ones you serve with or serve! Check in with each of them individually to see how they are enjoying their experience. If they have goals, find out if you are meeting them?  If they’re frustrated, find out if there are things you can do to address their issues? Find out if there are opportunities to improve board process.

Information is information. Ask the questions. Get the answers. Once you have the information you can decide what to do with it. It’s what we do with the information presented to us that separates the good leaders from the great!

Have you served on a board where you felt marginalized and ineffective? What did you do? What would you have told my friend? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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  1. […] When Boards set expectations, recruit for fit, experience and skill set, provide training to members about their role and then couple that with good board process, a robust committee structure with work assigned as per the agency’s needs and plan to move forward, board members are much more engaged. In the absence of that the work isn’t aligned so board members sometimes don’t think we need them, know what to do, or understand their role. Here’s a post to illustrate one board member’s experience. […]

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