aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Why Your Board of Directors is Dysfunctional

Posted by Ellen on December 21, 2011

And it is, isn’t it? Admit it. Well, maybe things seem okay for the moment, but at some point, you’ll experience frustration with a board of directors that you’ll be convinced is off its rocker, in whole or part.

It isn’t their fault.

Think about it.

They volunteer to run for the board of directors of your nonprofit organization, get elected or appointed, and voila! — they’re supposed to know what’s expected of them.

“But Ellen! We have an extensive board orientation program,” you say.

Sure you do.

You cover the organization’s pertinent documents (bylaws, standing rules, etc.), mix in the most critical legal stuff (open meetings laws, liabilities, etc.), spend some time with the financial data, maybe cover some of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Everybody leaves with a fat binder and cognitive overload.But nobody leaves having experienced effective training.

Stop a second and think about that.

You’ve just entrusted major decisions to a group of people based on a binder, a lot of conversation, and maybe a few expert speakers.

You’ve given them a lot of “what” stuff, but very little “how.”

Board members perform several tasks. Learning those tasks requires learning new skills — or adapting existing skills to new applications.

When is the last time your board orientation included practicing performing a necessary task? Or practicing anything?

When’s the last time you presented your board members with hypothetical problems of the sort they’ll need to solve? Case studies? Asked them to work together on a simulation?

I hear your protest: “But Ellen! That takes so much time and we already have several days devoted to this orientation!”

You’re right. You do not want to extend your orientation time. If anything, you want to reduce it.

Instead of walking the members through the bylaws, pick a half-dozen key items and create role-playing scenarios so they will experience them.

Instead of asking members to sit through a presentation by a legal expert, create a few scenarios based on the most likely litigation you could face. Have members work in small groups to work through what they should do and why.

Instead of handing your members a manual on Robert’s Rules of Order and expecting them to magically know the ins and outs of conducting a meeting with them (even assuming they actually take the time to read the manual, which they probably won’t), tell them you’ll be conducting part of the orientation using Robert’s Rules.

Instead of handing them a bunch of financial documents and tediously explaining each item line by line, ask them what they think the most pressing financial issue for the organization is, then use the documents to show the current fiscal situation. Ask them what they think the organization wastes the most money with, then use the budget to determine where the most money is spent, and where the least money is spent.Create an online version that includes explanations of those items through call-outs that appear when the mouse hovers over them so they can continue to refer to it even after the orientation session.

You probably have even better ideas than these to introduce more effective training techniques into your board orientation — the point is to involve them actively in the materials they will be using as board members. Get them thinking like board members through case studies and scenarios and small group discussions. Help them begin to behave like board members by modelling and practicing Robert’s Rules of Order (or other meeting management techniques).

We expect our children’s teachers to be trained in classroom management. We expect our doctor’s office to know how to keep our medical records straight. We expect our attorneys to have the answers to our questions.

Why should our board members be any different?

You wouldn’t want your children in a classroom where the teacher was given a week’s series of lectures and handed a binder then considered ready to do the job. If you’ve had a car accident, you wouldn’t want your insurance agent showing up in his pajamas complaining you interrupted his favorite daytime TV show, would you? of course not. You expect that they’ve been properly trained so you will get the service you expect from them.

Members expect that your board members are properly prepared, too. But taking on a board position is taking on a new job. New jobs require training. Yes, there’s some “orientation” involved, but to overlook the importance of training new board members is to render those members incompetent to fulfill their duties…

…leading to the very dysfunction you really, really, really don’t want permeating your board.

2 Responses to “Why Your Board of Directors is Dysfunctional”

  1. Great suggestions, Ellen. We assume our Board members know how to be Board members, that’s why we focus on so many facts. But even if they were Board members somewhere else, they weren’t Board members here. And if they served on dysfunctional Boards elsewhere, perhaps they think that’s the way Boards should operate.

    The next challenge is persuading Board members to participate in orientations of this type.

  2. Ellen said

    David — You’re right — justification is one thing; implementing it is another animal entirely. But I’m not convinced most board members would resist being more participatory in the session. The board members I’ve been exposed to tend to be gregarious sorts who believe they have something to offer — which would be a great fit for more active, authentic learning than the binder-based conventional route.

    Why do you think they would be reluctant?

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