Back Off the Ledge of Dysfunctional Mayhem

When dysfunction reigns, healthy board members head for the door.

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

When someone asked Bonhoeffer whether he shouldn’t join
the German Christians in order to work against them from within,
he answered that he couldn’t. “If you board the wrong train,” he said,
“it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.[1]

Eric Metaxas

 

Your board is blessed when the board chair and CEO can blend truth-telling with God-honoring grace. Here are six board members who need a wake-up call:

  • Abby only shows up at every other board meeting. She always has a plausible excuse, but her attendance ratio is only 50 percent.
  • Carl never reviews the materials provided before the meeting. As a result, the board must endure his endless questions during the meeting—questions he could have answered for himself if only he had studied the preliminary materials.
  • Brianna and Quincy cannot seem to get along with each other. In nearly every meeting, they lock horns in a demonstration that does not evidence the fruits of the Spirit.
  • Hallie brings a superiority complex to most meetings. She takes the position of an expert on every agenda item. When she begins to wax eloquent, other board members just roll their eyes.
  • Brandon regularly insists on wading into operational matters that are the purview of the CEO. The board chair continually attempts to bring Brandon back to board-level discussions, but Brandon just can’t seem to help himself.

What do Abby, Carl, Brianna, Quincy, Hallie, and Brandon have in common? They distract the board from its responsibilities. Other board members wonder, with so many dysfunctional members, is it really worth their time to serve on this board?

What does a board do when it is on the verge of dysfunctional mayhem? Should a board address discipline issues or let them fester? Most boards go with “fester” and trudge along with no relief in sight.

Without a course correction, the only ray of hope is to wait until term limits cycle out and then replace problem board members. That is, if the board has term limits in effect. If not, and Abby and friends are lifers, the festering takes on a life of its own.

Of course, the better choice is to address dysfunction, even though that may be the most painful route in the short-term. Here are four strategic steps:

  • Step 1. Assess the dysfunction. Who is causing the most significant disruption on the board? What are the most important issues that need to be addressed and when?
  • Step 2. Evaluate the level of dysfunction. This is a topic for the board chair, the CEO, and the governance committee to evaluate. Together, do they have the willing­ness to step up and do the hard, perhaps painful, work in seeking to change the board’s destructive direction?
  • Step 3. Develop a game plan. Decide which issues should be addressed first. Develop a priority plan and decide who will address them. For some board members, it may be best for the board chair to meet with the member alone. For others, the board chair and the CEO may wish to meet together with the board member.
  • Step 4. Roll up your sleeves and expect resolution. Pray for these outcomes:
    • “Absentee Abby.” The board chair met with Abby, and she readily admitted that her attendance was subpar. Because of her schedule, she could not commit to improve her attendance record. The board chair suggested Abby step off the board and consider rejoining it if time permitted in the future. She agreed and submitted her resignation. Bless her!
    • “Clueless Carl.” The meeting with Carl was more challenging. He really believed he was adequately reviewing board materials before the meeting. While he said he would try to do better, the commitment seemed shallow. Progress!
    • “Bickering Brianna” and “Quarrelsome Quincy.” This meeting was the most sensitive of all. They both felt their boardroom banter was just an extension of their personalities. They were surprised that other board members felt they were crossing a line with their verbal exchanges. However, they did agree to be more careful in their boardroom communication. Grace abounds!
    • “High-Horse Hallie.” The meeting with Hallie was not a walk in the park either. She resented the board chair questioning her attitude toward other board members. As the meeting progressed, she became increasingly agitated and at the mid-way point, she resigned. A good conclusion!
    • “Bottleneck Brandon.” During this meeting, Brandon clearly did not agree with the board chair and the CEO that his discussions were taking the board into the weeds. However, during the meeting, it seemed that the Holy Spirit was opening his eyes. He promised to work on his approach to board topics. Thank You, Lord, for opening his eyes!

So, this resulted in two resignations, three significant commitments to improve, and one response that was somewhat tepid. This hard work gives the board the opportunity to select two new qualified board members, and four other members were given a gentle nudge to step up in their commitment to good governance. The board chair and the CEO get two thumbs up for their work.

Monitoring aberrations in the board room is not easy. However, the options are clear: gently encourage board members to stay within reasonable boardroom guardrails or let boardroom issues fester and reap the results.

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Will you address serious board issues or let them fester?
Let’s face it—there are no perfect boards,
and there are no perfect board members.
Governance is an imperfect process.
However, addressing board dysfunctions in the short term promises
a much better opportunity to be a high-performing board in the long term

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Prepare: Ask board members to sign an annual affirmation statement that communicates God-honoring core values, giving board leadership an obvious basis to open a conversation about a member’s dysfunction.
  2. Discern: When you observe significant dysfunctions in the boardroom, commit to a prayer and discernment period before you take corrective
    action.

 

Prayer

Lord, grant us the wisdom and the strength
to address boardroom issues gracefully but head-on. Amen.

 

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 176.
 

From Lessons From the Nonprfit Boardroom: 40 Insights for Better Board Meetings, 2018, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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