Good organizations are governed by good boards. In nonprofits, business, and the church, I have worked for a number of boards. Additionally, I have served on dozens of boards as a board member, officer, or chairperson. (Check out some of them on my LinkedIn profile.) Along the way I’ve observed some mistakes boards make in trying to achieve to healthy governance.
I love the work of my friends at the ECFA and other organizations that help us better understand and do board governance well. My intent here is not to share legal or even professional best practices. This blog is one of personal opinion and, likewise, this post is simply from personal experience. I have seen boards do things that get in the way of healthy governance more than provide good governance.
10 of the biggest mistakes boards fall into:
Masked agreement. This includes being too kind and not managing conflict. False unity is not unity at all. While no board member should strive to stir conflict or dissention, pretending to agree just to “get along” isn’t helpful to the organization.
Majoring in minutia. Boards need to remain focused on the vision. They are like broad guardrails for the organization. I have never seen a healthy board/organization relationship where board members got too much in the weeds of daily operations.
Decision paralysis. Boards can study things forever, but at some point a decision needs to be made by the board. It frustrates staff that are waiting for direction when the board refuses to move forward in a timely manner.
Postponing tough decisions. I have seen this one many times in the church, but also in nonprofits where I have served as a board member. For example, I once served on a board with one paid staff member. Everyone on the board agreed the person was no longer the right fit, but it was difficult for them (us) to pull the trigger and do the right thing for the organization. (Obviously, this meant making a change in personnel, which is always hard to do.)
Awkward organizational relationships. I have known board members that have too close of a relationship to one person on the staff that clouds their outlook of the rest of the staff. This could be with the CEO or with someone in a less visible position. It creates tension within the organization when a staff member feels “untouchable” because of a board relationship.
Shared complacency. I have especially seen this one in the nonprofit world where the board members are unpaid. That makes member’s time limited, so often board members falsely assume someone else will do the work or they wait for another to raise their hand to volunteer. Being on a board is challenging work. If you’re going to sign up to the task you have to be willing to do the work.
Unhealthy personal interests. Conflicts of interest are always a problem, and most boards have “rules” against them. Yet, I have seen them occur many times. As examples, this could be a board member wanting their nephew to get “the job” or wanting to see dollars go only to a pet project of the board member. Boards must approach issues – as much as possible – with neutral eyes to do what is best for the organization.
Board alliances are divisive. I realize this sounds like a contradiction of terms, but it isn’t. Sometimes cliques develop on a board, and it begins to position people against each other. While I’m not always a proponent of reaching unanimous consent – (See number one) – I do like to see it whenever possible. Sometimes, however, divisions on the board are often formed based on relationships with other board members rather than doing the right thing for the organization.
Board members rotate too quickly. I once served on a board where most board members rotated every year – or every other year. By the time you learned what you were doing it was time to move off the board. In this scenario, it was difficult to move projects or ideas forward.
Board members stay too long. The counter to this is also true. I know it happens many times with elder boards for churches, but I’ve just never been a fan of a lifetime appointment to a governing board. At some point I think all of us become stale and we can’t see the changes needed because we’ve been looking at the problems long enough they become comfortable to us.
Again, these are simply observations. Feel free to dialogue with me about them in the comments where you have a differing opinion or another one to add.
In another post, I list some of the ways to be a good board member.