What do you do when a good board member goes bad?

One of the most important roles you have, as part of a board of directors, or as the executive director of a nonprofit, is to help identify and “vet” new board candidates. You use comprehensive checklists, you interview a wide range of people, you consider what skills and talents our strategic plan requires, you consider our key volunteers and partners. Eventually, you create the best panel of candidates you can and invite them to join the board.

So far, so good. The orientation goes well and each new director is excited to be joining the team. For a while, things go very well and it seems you’ve landed a high value, hard working board. But then, something starts to subtly shift. One or two of your board members starts becoming difficult to work with. There was no single trigger event causing this change, it just starts happening in little ways. The director becomes difficult to please, unreasonable, argumentative, or just no longer wants to work as part of a team.

What happened? Chances are, it wasn’t one thing. But no matter how hard we try, no matter how experienced we are at board building, sooner or later nearly every nonprofit leader faces this problem. And it’s a tough one.

All executive directors and board chairs want smart, dedicated, creative thinkers serving on their boards—people who will speak truth and can be counted on to always give their best efforts.

We can easily deal with directors who might cause a bit of healthy friction during board discussions as long as they stick to the issues and avoid getting personal or rude. After all, no one should want a room full of yes people serving on the board. All we ask is that it be done in a respectful and professional way.  Most of the time, that’s exactly what we get, but from time to time a board member may become a problem.   

So, what do you do with a problem board member?

First, remember that each director was careful identified and recruited onto the board, to fill a specific need, so they should be treated well and recognized as the asset they are to the agency. They have a critical role to play, and if possible you still want to tap into their skill-set, talents, or experience.

While often appealing, simply hoping things will improve over time, without taking action, is not a solution. The environment at board meetings will probably just get more negative. Worse yet, avoiding the issue may signal to other directors that this is acceptable behavior, creating more of what you don’t want. Not a good place to be…

Recognize that dealing with this challenge effectively requires the active support and participation of the board chair or governance committee chair — ideally to take the lead.  This is not the time for an executive director to go it alone and approach the director in question.

Have a conversation with the board and governance committee chairs to see if they agree that this has become a problem situation. Invite their insight and perspective on the issue and see if they believe it is an overall board challenge, or perhaps only a challenge one-on-one between this board member and you. Sometimes your leadership and communication style or overall approach may not fit well with each of the directors on the board. In this case you would need to consider modifying your approach — if you want to retain this director, and create a better working relationship, or work towards replacing this individual on the board.

If your board chair and/or governance committee chair feel your style and approach were not causing the problem, and this challenge was more global to the board itself, then it’s time to gather facts supporting your concern about the director’s behavior and how it has and continues to impede the agency’s mission and progress.

Create a plan of how to address these concerns with the director in question. Rehearse the conversation ahead of time to help smooth out the tougher points. I would encourage you to speak with an HR or Organizational Development Professional who can offer specific advice for framing conversations like this. It will need to be handled in a professional, tactful, and non-abrasive manor. Then meet with the director to discuss the challenge.  This meeting should include the board and/or governance committee chair. Keep in mind, the goal of this meeting is to bring about positive change. While it can be tempting to vent frustrations, try to keep emotions out of the conversation and instead stick to the facts at hand. Remember, all of you should have the same goal in mind — moving the organization forward. With this focus in mind, here is a 12-step strategy to follow to help structure the conversation. 

12 Critical Components for an Effective Tough Conversation

  1. First, remind everyone present that you’re all working towards the same goal of building a stronger, more impactful agency, and to do this you need a cohesive leadership team. You need each director to play an active and positive role in helping to move the organization forward.
  2. Remind the director in question that they were identified and recruited onto the board for their specific talents and/or experience, and that you value them as part of your team, but you need to find a way to work more effectively together.
  3. Describe the unacceptable behavior you have experienced, using specific examples, including time and place
  4. Describe how it hurts the board and the mission, that it has increased over time and has become a distraction from the mission and activities
  5. Provide specific feedback obtained from other directors or garnered via annual reviews, or other sources
  6. Make it clear that certain behaviors will not be tolerated (if appropriate)
  7. Describe how well things (with him/her) used to go and how so much had been accomplished, as opposed to now.
  8. Seek his or her reaction to your concerns
  9. If the director has issues with the agency’s decisions, direction, policies, or operations, this would be the time for some straight talk to resolve it. Perhaps it’s a communication problem more than anything else. If not, there may be an underlying personal problem, or the individual simply didn’t realize they had become a problem.
  10. Come to the meeting with an end game in mind. List out the outcomes you need to see, in terms of behaviors. You may even want to come to the meeting with some specific suggestions.
  11. Ask the director if they still want to maintain an active (and supportive) role on your leadership team. Ask if they still value the mission and vision and want to continue to be part of the organization. This may give them an opportunity to self-select out.
  12. Make it your goal to come away from the conversation with specific next steps. Will you review the situation in a few months to see if there is improvement? Has the director indicated the behavior will change? Will you move forward with replacing the director?

It’s essential to know your intentions before having this conversation, to remain calm and professional during the conversation, and to have a clear plan-of-action following the discussion. The goal is not to create, or increase existing conflict, but to find common ground, and move towards resolution — even if this means removing someone from the board.

Aside from this critical conversation, there are other organizational tools that can help you address a problem director.

  • Does your agency Values Statement contain any wording about treating people with mutual respect, courtesy, etc?
  • Does any wording currently exist, or could be included, in some of your board approved, agency documents to better describe acceptable behavior?
    • Does your Board of Director job description include verbiage about acceptable or expected behavior?
    • Do your bylaws include any mention of expectations, and/or how to resolve this situation?
    • Does your Board Policy Manual cover these challenges?

There really is no one best way to approach board problems like this one. Reach out to other nonprofit leaders in your circle of advisors and colleagues before taking specific action. Whenever I faced performance problems, I always found HR/OD professionals extremely valuable so seek one out if possible.

There is a very good book available, Crucial Conversations, that can help you frame tough conversations. It just might be the tool to empower you to conduct frank, honest discussions in a meaningful way.

If you’ve had experience dealing with difficult board members I’d love to hear about your experiences — the good and the bad. What was the situation and how did you address it? What advice would you share with others? Add your comment below.