Tyranny of the few

Boards develop tyrants due to poor board management. One of the many reasons for having manageable-sized boards (15 to 20 members) is to increase the odds that they are managed. Boards need to be actively managed, both by their leaders on the board and senior management, as well as by the board members themselves. Without effective board management poor board behaviour goes unchecked and uncorrected until the board as a whole is not performing. You know when that has happened when you have a hard time recruiting new board members, when the best board performers are no longer showing up, or are unwilling to take on more responsible board positions. Board governance is indeed lost when the senior staff and senior board members find themselves making decisions and pretending to present those decisions to the board for ratification. Saying that the board doesn't care is a cop-out. Concluding that you need to re-examine and correct board behaviour would be correct.


Most new board members start with the best intentions. Regardless of how clear the board manual and thorough the orientation (you are doing a full day orientation, are you not?), subsequent interaction with board members can support those good intentions or let them slip. Are board members actively involved in the preparation of materials for board meetings? Does the chair insure that each board member address each board issue or do you allow some to become ‘ghosts' - not really entirely there - while others dominate all discussions -the ‘bullies'.

Ghosts often offer an excuse for ducking issues as not being ‘in my area of expertise'. At the board level, all board work is each board member's responsibility. If a topic is unfamiliar then arrange relevant training for board members. Board members can become ghosts when they are not prepared well. Did the board materials get out a full 7 days before the meeting? Did those materials meet the 1/3/7 rules for including the relevant background while focusing the information on a needed decision? Did the member not take the time? Poor board member performance is the chair's responsibility: deal with senior staff to insure good quality board materials delivered on time; reiterate board members responsibilities to be prepared; carefully call on each board member on each board issue to communicate the expectation that all board members are expected to pull their weight on all issues.

Equally dangerous to board productivity is allowing board bullies. You have board bullying if you have heard the same comment repeatedly during a board discussion, if an individual insists on having the last word, indulges in commentary after a board decision or even worse, threatens the board or the organization with withdrawal of support. These circumstances all require an immediate board recess to allow the board chair to correct the bullying board member. Better to do that intervention right away while the poor behaviour is apparent and irrefutable.

Lastly, the board should take a half hour near the end of every board meeting for self-reflection. These in-camera sessions should be structured and focused on how each board member and the board as a whole are serving the governance of the organization. Are we collectively accomplishing something worthwhile or just marking time? Am I contributing, just taking up space or impeding progress?

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