From Ratchet to Revived: Engaging a Disengaged Board
By Makiyah Moody, Governance Initiatives Director
In a previous post, I discussed the importance of Relational Leadership and how strong relationships propel a board to excellence. As a reminder, the Relational Leadership model encompasses five domains: purpose, inclusion, empowerment, ethics and process. This post is a sequel and addresses how empowerment, ethics and process can be leveraged to revive a disengaged board.
Generally speaking board members are an ambitious bunch. Through their actions they demonstrate a commitment to community improvement through volunteer leadership and offer a concrete skill to the board’s operations. So, how is it that people of this caliber can become more of a liability than an asset? I’m using broad strokes here, as I know that no two boards are the same, however, broadly speaking I’ve identified three ways that board members lose their edge: mismatched expectations, inept processes, and negated empowerment.
Mismatched expectations: Have you ever heard the expression, “A lot of sizzle, not a lot of steak?” One reason board members become disengaged with service is misalignment between the expectations (or lack thereof) communicated prior to joining. The reality of the commitment once the position begins differs from what the candidate expected. Boards in recruitment mode may sometimes woo potential candidates by downplaying what is actually required to be a contributing, effective board member.
Turning the tide on mismatched expectations requires that the governance committee has a solid onboarding process to acclimate new members. Consider the type of orientation received upon beginning a new job. Board service is no different. Managing expectations after orientation requires a process to offer feedback to board members who are exceeding expectations and those who are missing the mark. Boards that prioritize collective learning achieve more. It’s necessary to embed ongoing board education and performance management systems into the flow of board operations.
Inept processes: Boards are ecosystems unto themselves. Consider the intricate relationships, power dynamics, and overall board culture – these elements impact how the group functions as a collective. Standard operating procedures at the governance level are a key ingredient for a stable infrastructure.
What processes help operationalize a board’s work? First, at a minimum, boards use a board action calendar that denotes all of the required actions from year to year. The staple document streamlines the work of the board by setting deadlines and keeping tasks top of mind. Second, the agreed upon destination must be common knowledge. Successful boards establish annual goals which are separate from the school leaders’ goals though connected in some instances. What is success at the end of the fiscal year? What are the targets for financial stability? What metrics will determine whether the board is governing effectively and fulfilling its duties of care, loyalty and obedience? Third, the processes that the board adheres to should be documented in a board binder that reminds board members of how the board has decided to comport itself. There are a host of processes that can be designed to make the work of the board more manageable and meaningful. These processes should be discussed with the board, co-signed by board members, and used to hold board members accountable for performance.
Negated empowerment: Chaos ensues when there is not clarity andagreement around roles and responsibilities. Strong boards know who is responsible for what and when. Formal systems that dictate how committees interact with the full board and how the contributions of each individual board member contribute to the organization’s impact are critical. When there is confusion about who has ultimate responsibility for a task, it’s nearly impossible to hold board members accountable. In order for board members to make informed decisions, an infrastructure must be in place to provide equal access to information. Board members opt out and become disengaged when their presence and contributions seem superfluous. Engagement stems from a meaningful experience and board members are empowered when they are informed.
To ensure organizational success and mission fulfillment, boards must think anew about board operations, place greater emphasis on consistent adherence to board policies, and intensify its focus on ethics. In addition to a fiduciary responsibility, board members have ethical obligations to demonstrate a duty of care, a duty of loyalty and a duty of obedience. Countless boards run amok when board members lose sight of their ethical obligations.
The consequences to organizational reputation and community standing are irreparable. Sustaining an organization’s long-term success requires an engaged board that holds itself to a standard of excellence.
Considerations for Revamping a Ratchet Board
- Develop the capacity of the board through strategic recruitment. The Governance Committee leads this effort. If one doesn’t exist, create it. A functional Governance Committee is responsible for governance processes at an enterprise level, including but not limited to board member identification, recruitment, selection and continuing education.
- Engage the current board in the solution. Chances are that the board has been slowing dying for some time and no one had the courage to call it out. Begin with a board assessment to determine expertise gaps and gauge reflections on what’s working and what’s not.
- Create a succession plan for board leadership. Sometimes boards are “stuck” with inactive board members because a pipeline hasn’t been developed to pass the baton.
- Examine the flow of board meetings. If board meetings are simply “sit and gets” and don’t leverage the collective wisdom in the room by engaging in robust discourse or generative thinking, then the likelihood is greater that board members will check out. Board meetings require active engagement, not just showing up.
According to Leading With Intent: A National Index of National Nonprofit Board Practices, a 2015 report published by BoardSource, “Board members have no one to blame but themselves if the board does not have the right board members. Either the process for identifying, cultivating, nominating, and electing board members is flawed, or implementation falls short. While clearly not easy, strategic board recruitment needs to become a board priority. ”