Leading a board would be so fulfilling, so rewarding, and so cool if it weren’t for those problem board members, right?

True confession time: You’ve definitely had these thoughts. I know you have…I’ve had gallons of coffee (and an occasional scone, or two) with so many of you who have expressed to me your frustration with one or more directors.  

Now, I love scones, but enough is enough. Let’s discuss the problem and figure out how to fix it. 

If you’re like most CEO’s, board chairs, or directors, you have undoubtedly felt this way at one time or another. You may have even stepped off of a board prematurely because one or two directors consistently took all the fun and personal satisfaction out of your board service with their behavior. 

Let’s start with a simple definition, what is a “Problem Board Member?”

Well, if you have a board member that displays the following behaviors, you have a Problem Board Member, a PBM for short. They identify themselves by:

  1. Seeming to get into an argument with someone at most meetings 
  2. Getting personal in their discussions
  3. Feeling they have a privileged position and are therefore “entitled”
  4. Spreading negativity throughout 
  5. Having an inconsistent attendance record
  6. Not volunteering or taking any action, just sitting there instead
  7. Not following through on their commitments

These behaviors can drive leaders and other directors crazy! There is no reason anyone has to put up with problem board members. This behavior can poison the organization’s culture and ruin what is otherwise a well-functioning board. 

For these reasons, this problem must be dealt with before your meetings turn into two hours of nasty arguments resulting in the resignation of your very best directors. After all, who needs this? Do you know if this problem board member is pushing your team off track? Take a small “Break Through Quiz” to gain some insight. 

“But Tom”, you say, “What can I do? Taking on this person is going to cause me even more trouble and I just don’t have the time to deal with another problem.” 

I know, removing PBM’s is not easy. It is simple, but not easy. Virtually everyone I have met with was aware of what needed to be done, they just didn’t have the energy or a plan to follow. 

Let’s dig a little deeper. Why is it so difficult to remove a PBM? 

Admittedly, there are valid reasons this can be a challenge. This person may be:

  1. A major donor
  2. Your best friend, or, worse yet, a relative
  3. The friend of an influential friend of the agency
  4. Well connected in the community
  5. A beloved, former key person who has simply stayed around too long
  6. A former top performer or supporter and is kept around simply out of respect for their past service
  7. The type to allow negative publicity in the community
  8. One who cannot handle negativity or confrontation, no matter how minor in nature 

As if these reasons didn’t make things hard enough, there are two more:

  1. Confronting or terminating a board member maybe may be culturally difficult to do. If your agency acts so respectfully and politely that even poor performance issues or operational failures are not confronted, then confronting a PBM could be very disruptive.
  2. The process of addressing a board member’s shortcomings could be a complicated process; full of emotions, red tape, etc.

So, what do you do? You don’t want to open up a can of worms, yet you can’t ignore the problem or you’ll risk losing the confidence of the entire board. 

The answer is, you must confront the problem. 

So, what do you do to fix (or remove) the problem and who should be the one to do it?

My recommendation is to not assume removing your PBM is your only option. You may be able to salvage an otherwise valued board member through a process commonly called “Performance Management.” 

Here are some steps you can take when facing an intolerable or uncomfortable situation with the performance of a board member. 

  1. The board chair, with factual and detailed input from others, including dates and specific examples, should meet privately with the PBM
  2. Always speak truthfully, clearly describing the unacceptable behavior and how it deviates from your published values (if applicable) 
  3. For repeat offenders, review prior agreements made with the individual, letting them know there will be no more exceptions allowed
  4. Review your board’s job description, values, and cultural practices regarding the offending behavior 
  5. Explain what harmful damage has been done as a direct result of the offending behavior 
  6. Set a path for change, getting mutual agreement on the need and the pathway forward. If appropriate, it may be necessary to explain that there will be no more second chances
  7. Implement a board policy manual to keep yourself and your team on the same page
  8. If they improve, great! If not, the next conversation will be a lot different (they will know what that means)

Like I said, this process is simple, but not easy. In instances with Problem Board Members, gaining the confidence to sit them down and have a discussion will be difficult, but once you do, the entire board will reap the benefits. You might actually be surprised by how well this conversation will go!

If you’re interested in learning more, check out my new book, From the Inside Out: Leading Where It Matters Most. Chapter 11, “Houston, We Have a Problem,” addresses boards that underperform, including directors themselves.

Get a head start and download the first chapter for free! 

This can be a tricky and touchy subject within a board, don’t hesitate to reach out for added support! I’m happy to help in any way I can.