Here’s Some First Steps to Start “Fixing” a Broken Board

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    When Boards have recurring problems, such as poor attendance, low participation, high turnover of members, or increasing conflicts, here’s a quick process that I’ve used successfully to “jump start” recovery.

    Sure, the steps aren’t all of those needed for complete Board development — those steps would produce a blog post about 25 pages long. But the steps often are enough to get things going.

    1. Propose a very brief Board evaluation as a “best practice.”

    Don’t suggest it to “fix” a broken Board. Instead, suggest it as a “best practice” — members rarely refuse to do a best practice. Use a straightforward questionnaire that asks about the occurrence of various “best practices.” The tool should not require more than 20-30 minutes for each Board member to do, because they’re all very busy people. Here’s some Board evaluation tools:

    2. Ask a couple of Board members to be an ad hoc “Board Governance Committee.”

    The Committee compiles results of the evaluation and shows them to Board members in the next meeting. Don’t do a lot of analysis and interpretation of results. Just compile the results onto a couple of sheets of paper.

    3. In the next meeting, show the results, then ask “What do we want to do?”

    Be quiet and listen as Board members discuss what they themselves wrote on the evaluation — it’s their words that are being fed back to them, not the Committee members’. Ask “What if we do nothing? What do we want to do?” Usually, members want to do something, but they’re just not sure what to do.

    4. So then suggest that they approve a simple “Board Development Plan.”

    The Plan lists goals for improving the Board. The goals simply are the questions from the evaluation tool that now are reworded into goals. Don’t worry about whether there’s too many goals in the Plan. The real purpose is to get members energized and focused to improve their board.

    5. On each meeting agenda, have “Status of implementing Board Development Plan.”

    In each meeting, members are at least reminded that they could improve Board operations. That usually makes them mindful of improving the Board, or at least trying harder to do a better job as Board members. From there, members might get help if needed, but they’ll certainly have more focus and a much stronger vision for health of their Board.

    The above steps might not be all that’s needed, but they’re often useful in doing just what this blog post mentions — jump starting activities to fix the Board for the long term.

    Some Cautions — What Often Doesn’t Work

    1. Don’t get caught up in analyzing Board members’ personalities.

    When Boards struggle, members often start blaming each other. Don’t get caught up in analyzing the titillating psychodynamics of the interpersonal relationships of the Board members. Instead, move them away from focusing on personalities to focusing on plans and practices. The above procedure helps to do that. Often the most irritating Board members become the best ones when they see the Board is making progress.

    2. Don’t do a one-shot Board training session.

    Members rarely struggle because they’ve simply forgotten their roles and responsibilities. They need more than new knowledge from a training session — they need skills from practicing that new knowledge. So instead of a one-shot training session, they need Board development. Board development often includes a variety of “interventions,” for example, an initial Board evaluation, a resulting Board development plan, adopting various Board policies, coaching of Board officers over several months and even a post-evaluation.

    3. Don’t just preach at, or continue to confront members — and don’t just try get them excited about their jobs.

    Those tactics might work for a short while, but it’s very likely that motivation will quickly go away when members are back in meetings, faced with the realities of their ongoing roles and responsibilities. Board members rarely have chronic struggles because members just don’t feel good about each other, or because they’ve somehow completely forgotten the importance of their jobs. Instead, they struggle because they’ve gotten away from the basic structures, roles and practices that provide the framework and foundation within which they do their jobs.

    What do you think?

    Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD – Authenticity Consulting, LLC – 800-971-2250
    Read my weekly blogs: Boards, Consulting and OD, Nonprofits and Strategic Planning.