Warning Signs of Board Underperformance and What to Do About It
By Cathy A. Trower
As Harvard business school professor Dutch Leonard once said, The central challenge of leadership in nonprofit organizations is that mediocrity is survivable. While this may be true, Ive never run across a nonprofit board member who thrills to being average or an executive director who is motived by ordinariness. Quite the contrary; those who serve the nonprofit sector are typically passionate about our causes and want to do good things in the world.
So why is it all too common to see so many smart, successful, passionate people performing so poorly, at worst, or average, at best, on nonprofit boards? What are the warning signs that something is amiss? And what might be done to counteract these tendencies?
Warning Sign #1: Disengagement
Board members disengage for many reasons. In my experience, the most common is that they are bored at board meetings as they sit listening to reports they have already read and watch mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations with way too many slides, bullets, and sub-bullets.
This warning sign is the opposite of the first but sometimes occurs for the same reason: board members micromanage because they arent invited to macro-govern. Presenting to board members, rather than engaging with them, is practically an invitation into minutia. Just to stay awake, and show that theyre prepared, board members will readily dive into the weedsand take others with themby asking a question about Slide 29, bullet 10, or page 52 of the report.
Many nonprofit CEOs complain that their board is all over the map and board members express frustration that theyre unclear about what theyre supposed to do to add value.
Theres an old joke that CEOs might not find humorous: Management messes up; fire management. Board messes up; fire management. The trouble is this is all too true. No single individual on a nonprofit board is accountable. In fact, most of the time, the board as a whole isnt either. Its the CEO who has to explain board decisions to various stakeholders.
A sense of team is essential to high performance in the boardroom. All great teams have a stated common purpose with clearly articulated and compelling goals. Team members know how they can best contribute and work hard to establish trust through respect. But many boards in no way resemble a high-performing team as some dominate while others say little; some interrupt; some show little tolerance for process or a different point of view.