Lack of Understanding
The Problem: The board just “doesn’t get it.”
When the board is ignorant about the organization’s mission or programs, it leads to a lack of communication with executive leadership as well as a lack of engagement with the organization itself. The board should understand what kind of challenges the organization is facing across operations, staffing, and the audience they serve in order to strategically plan to overcome them. Without a thorough understanding of what the organization is facing and what it wants to accomplish, it cannot succeed.
The Solution: Board development and onboarding are important tools to lean on, especially with newer or less experienced boards. Board members that are new to serving on a board or new to the organization may have every desire to do well in their roles but may not have the skillsets yet to do so. Be sure to include in both recruiting and onboarding conversations discussions about the challenges the organization has had in the past, and how the board dealt with those. Be up front about the role you need board members to play: An extra set of critical eyes to watch for threats you may not see, or to make sure the organization stays on mission in the face of increasing demands. Bringing in a nonprofit board consultant to train them is an excellent way to tackle a lack of understanding by board members in a way that will set them up for future success.
The Problem: The board chair wants to be involved in every aspect of the organization.
Of course, the opposite problem of being disengaged from the organization is being too involved. When the board chair does it all because they want their hands in everything, they undermine the ability of other board members to be effective. As a result, when they step away often times no one wants to take on the role for fear that they will be compared to their predecessor.
The Solution: Assisting board members in developing new skills and identifying appropriate board versus staff roles can ease them into taking on new roles. Help prepare them to lead using formal tools like board training and informal methods like leading by example. Show them that “different” doesn’t mean “bad.” Equip them to be a part of the future of the organization by showing them what appropriate management looks like and investing in them both personally and professionally.
The Problem: The board thinks they can do a better job of leading than the Executive Director.
Unlike micromanaging, which involves wanting to be a part of every small decision, bullheadedness is characterized by wanting to take over and drive the organization’s big decisions. Whether it’s the budget or strategic goal setting, the board decides to do things their own way instead of listening to your counsel. They do not want to consider your concerns or objections because they think they have the most knowledge about what the organization needs.
The Solution: When a new Executive Director comes in, they will need to set the expectation that they are the expert on HOW to run the organization so it can achieve its mission. They should welcome feedback from the board but remain firm in their expectation that the board will support their decision-making on operational issues, not the other way around. Likewise, the Executive Director should respect the board’s role of fiduciary governance and oversight, by offering data and insight from the operational side during discussions about the future. Knowing that there are bullheaded board members may inform the Executive Director’s communication style as well as the amount of context and explanation they provide when sharing information; however, they will need to make it clear that they are there to lead the organization.
For Executive Directors that are remaining in the role, bringing in additional personnel may help to regain their leadership role from a board that has usurped it. For example, utilizing a board governance/board development expert can help a leader find balance with their board, or creating a finance committee/appointing a treasurer can help to add credibility to financial recommendations. Additionally, doing regular reviews of the budget can allow the board to keep close tabs on how the organization is performing and let the numbers speak for themselves.
Difficult Personalities/Bad Actors
The Problem: A board chair or board member is becoming difficult or problematic.
When a member of the board is offending other members, how do you get people to speak up and demand change? The person causing conflict may simply have a strong personality that other people find off putting, or something more nefarious may be occurring. A board member’s motivations may not be good, and that is often a bigger problem. Someone may be backchanneling to find allies for their perspectives or find someone else to raise their objections for them. They may be making unethical or uncomfortable decisions (either internally or publicly). They may be creating or perpetuating a toxic culture. How do you get the rest of the board to be good stewards of the organization’s culture and prioritize the organization’s wellbeing over their own comfort?
The Solution: The first issue to address is that of whose responsibility it is to manage board performance and behavior. The correct answer is: The board. In order for the balance of power to remain…balanced, the board should be policing itself. The ED can give insight to board leadership on performance, but board leadership should step up manage and police board behavior. Allowing it default to the ED sets up a toxic power dynamic that is a breeding ground for personality conflicts. As difficult as it is to say, if board leadership confronting the offending member doesn’t work, sometimes the only solution is to fire the board member that is causing problems. If you have clearly communicated your concerns and tried to work with them but there has been no change (or change is coming too slowly for the organization to withstand), you may need to let them go. Obviously, you will need to follow all applicable legal regulations for doing so, but this may be the right solution to protect the organization over the long-term.
The Problem: A board member diverts the organization to serve their “pet area” that they are passionate about.
The organization is going in one direction and then as a result of strong or forceful suggestions by one board member, it begins to go in another direction. If left unchecked, it leads to mission creep, resulting in an organization that leadership and the rest of the board no longer recognizes.
The Solution: If one board member is derailing the organization, bring it to the rest of the board. Start with a “Mission test” for the new project. If you can’t make a direct link to the mission and your current strategic plan, you may have a mission creeper on your hands! The board should always act as one body, which means that one member should not have too much power. Do not let yourself get emotionally attached to any one thing. Be prepared to cut anything that is going to detract from the organization’s core mission and create this expectation among your board members as well.
Because almost all of our team members have served in interim Executive Director roles, we have first-hand experience in going into struggling organizations and helping to get them back on track. In some cases, the former Executive Director stepped down due to the problems that organization was having, leaving them without leadership at a critical time in their journey. In other instances, an organization was running smoothly until their Executive Director left, and then a lack of effective transition management caused the organization to slump. In both types of scenarios, the solutions we helped to implement made the difference for these organizations. When your board is experiencing problems, nonprofit board advisory services can help get your organization back on track. Our team of nonprofit consultants will use their extensive leadership experience to move your board forward, building a stronger organization that can better serve its community. Contact us today to find out more!
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