by Lisa Parro, Outcomes, Jun/Jul 2008
Fresh Start* was a thriving nonprofit helping the unemployed move off welfare and into the workforce. Yet 13 years after its founding, the community-based organization that provided job skills and connected able-bodied individuals with apprenticeships and other career opportunities seemed in need of a fresh start itself.
The group's executive director, who previously sat on Fresh Start's board of directors, brought on organizational expert Jim Brown to turn its dysfunctional board into a more cohesive group.
The problem stemmed from founder and board chairman Bill*, who decided Fresh Start had served its purpose and sought to take Fresh Start in a new direction. An entrepreneur at heart, he began meddling in the organization's daily operations in his attempt to steer the executive director toward his next pet project.
Instead of addressing its concerns with Bill, Fresh Start's board of directors preferred to focus on its stated mission. Board members didn't know how to confront Bill because, after all, the organization was his brainchild. Yet the more successful Fresh Start became, the more friction grew at the board level. For the good of the organization, something needed to be done.
In the turbulent process of removing a disruptive board member, Fresh Start's leaders learned three significant lessons:
1. Defy procrastination, and act now.
"Getting the right people on your board is critical and getting the wrong ones off—you've got to do it," says Fresh Start Executive Director Steve Charles*. "I think organizations rise and fall, quite frankly, with the quality of their board members."
As was the case with Fresh Start, board members often say they don't want to confront an unproductive board member because they don't want to hurt someone's feelings.
But really they're afraid of putting themselves in an uncomfortable position, says Brown, founding partner of Strive!, a leadership development firm based in Guelph, Ontario, and the author of The Imperfect Board Member.
"Our problem as Christians is that instead of speaking the truth in love, we think love means being nice," Brown says.
"That leads to a common mistake [in board dealings] of not removing the people who need removal. We say, 'Oh, there's only two more years left in his term. Let's wait it out.' That means you put up with dysfunction for two more years."
Since procrastination was not an option, Brown moved swiftly. With all members of the board gathered at the table for a meeting, Brown addressed Bill.
"I was wondering if sitting on this board is the right fit for you. Your role on this board is a distraction from where God has your heart these days."
Although Fresh Start is a secular organization, all of its board members come from a faith background. Gently but firmly, Brown advised Bill to consider resigning from the board.
During the conversation that ensued, Bill explained that he no longer wanted to serve on the board, but felt he was obliged to continue the work he started. Brown encouraged him to step down, explaining that no one would consider it abandonment.
They parted amicably. Fresh Start appointed a new board chairman and continued to thrive, says Charles, tripling the organization's gross revenue, diversifying its funding sources, doubling the size of its staff, and quadrupling the amount of square footage it leases.
2. Put your board roles and policies in writing.
Besides appreciating Brown's "act now" approach, the Fresh Start board learned they needed written governing policies that spelled out the roles and responsibilities of board membership. Although the board followed written operating policies detailing, for example, how many meeting absences would result in removal from the board, it lacked a document outlining the duties of board members.
A board's job is to, as Brown puts it, "direct and protect." The best advice Brown can give a board is to be clear of its duty to do just that. He estimates that most ministry organizations spend 80 percent of their board meetings talking about recent history or operational details, and very little time talking about goals and governance.
For example, says Brown, a typical church board might have an hour-long discussion on a Sunday school issue that came up two weeks earlier before moving on to real board business.
"That isn't a church board job. That's why they have staff," Brown says. "The board needs to do more about goal setting. They need to do more dreaming and praying about what's ahead and asking, 'What are the challenges and the risks and how are we prepared to manage them?'"
This realization leads to the Fresh Start board's third lesson:
3. Board membership is a responsibility, not a privilege.
Bill's history with the organization didn't automatically entitle him to a seat at the board table, says Brown. Leaders of organizations must realize everyone has different talents, gifts, and abilities, and some board members might be better off serving on committees or contributing to the ministry as a volunteer.
"Some people are not cut out to be board members," notes Brown. "People who love the nitty-gritty details are not good board members. You need to enjoy the big picture."
Brown often is contacted to respond to a surface-level problem when he discovers an issue that's more deeply seeded in the organization—for instance, for help firing a ministry's executive director. Once involved, he quickly learns that this is the second or third executive director the board has hired in a short period of time. In most of those cases, the problem isn't the executive director—it's the board.
"The problem that is the most visible is usually a symptom of the real problem," he says.
While the problem Fresh Start faced with Bill was his micromanagement of the organization, boards often deal with the opposite predicament: a complacent or negligent board member.
In some cases, successful board members facing personal issues might not know how to admit that they can no longer fulfill their board duties.
When several board members continually skip meetings, that can create a morale problem among the remaining board members who consistently show up, says Bob Andringa, president emeritus of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
"Most boards today expect attendance," says Andringa. "Most boards expect that their members would come to meetings prepared."
Before removing an unproductive board member, a board must examine its bylaws to determine if a board member can be terminated without cause by a majority or super majority vote, Andringa says.
The board should also be prepared to deal with possible negative effects on public and donor relations and its future relationship with that individual.
"There's got to be a discussion that says if we nudge this person off the board or vote this person off the board, are we committed to maintaining our social fellowship with this person?" says Andringa.
When a board goes through the process of removing an unproductive board member, it is quicker to respond to future problems.
The experience often teaches board members to communicate early and often, long before a problem becomes a crisis.
"Whatever the change is," says Brown, "the most exciting thing is the learning is so ingrained, it becomes part of their DNA."
Lisa Parro is a Chicago-area freelance journalist.
*Fresh Start, Bill and Steve Charles are pseudonyms.
Source: "Reclaiming Board Effectiveness: Removing a board member can be a painful necessity" by Lisa Parro | Outcomes, Jun/Jul 2008