Board Chairs Behaving Badly
By Nanette R. Fridman, MPP, JD and Kathy Cohen, Ph.D.
In November, eJP published an article that we wrote about board members who behave badly. Feedback from eJP readers let us know that we hit a nerve and that many in the nonprofit world were struggling with these archetypes on their boards. From that feedback came several requests for us to write an article about board chairs who behave badly. We are sorry to say that in fact board chairs behaving badly is another common challenge our clients bring to us. Even with the best missions, visions, plans and programs, board chairs can get in the way of organizations achieving their fullest potential. But not all hope is lost. Below are eight different archetypes of “challenging board chairs” and strategies for managing them.
The Imposer genuinely loves the mission of the organization and wants to see the organization thrive and grow. However, the Imposer has strongly held convictions about the mission, action plans, and implementation that may, or may not, differ from the best interests or agreed upon strategy of the organization. The Imposer foists his or her vision onto the board and the administration. Any challenge or question areas are shut down without regard for building true consensus and getting buy-in. The Imposer has an inability or unwillingness to advocate effectively for and advance a shared organizational agenda. The net result is that fellow trustees can feel their voices don’t matter and can become disengaged from the work of the board, curtailing trustees’ collective responsibility for the health of the board, innovation, and progress.
The Solution: The Imposer needs to be coached to understand that his or her role is to lead the board, not dictate the course. The Imposer will benefit most from understanding that strong, confident and progressive leadership includes engaging and cultivating others’ voices and skills for the greater good of the organization. Board members, specifically including the Governance Committee or Leadership Development Committee chair and the executive director should challenge the Imposer privately and, if need be, during meetings to allow open discussion. This will create room for board members to sustain and grow their passion for the organization therefore helping the organization achieve its highest potential.
All board members should support the executive. However, the Protector is an outspoken, unwavering defender of the executive director in all circumstances. (You may remember the Protector as the Ally in our Board Members Behaving Badly article.) The Protector is blind to any significant deficiencies in the executive director, even if those blinders put the organization’s strategy at risk. The Protector will jump to defend the CEO if he or she senses any rising criticism at board meetings.
The Solution: Protectors can be wonderful public ambassadors for the organization as they highlight the great work of the executive director. However, they do a great disservice to the organization by quashing private boardroom discourse. Respectfully questioning the executive director is a fundamental role of all trustees. The Protector will benefit from a candid conversation with the Governance Committee chair or the Leadership Development Committee chair about the roles and responsibilities of each trustee. Part of the board chair’s role is to be the organization’s number one public supporter, as well as the executive director’s number one partner with whom the board chair can share honest and direct feedback about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part and parcel of this is the ability of the board chair to hear concern and criticism from others with an open mind and the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The Vanisher promises to be an active, involved, and available leader to his or her fellow trustees, as well as an accessible partner to the executive director. But as soon as the Vanisher’s tenure begins, he or she increasingly recedes from view. This lack of presence can swiftly lead to unfinished agendas, stagnation in innovation and strategy implementation, and frustrated and disengaged trustees. Perhaps most worrisome, the Vanisher leaves the executive director unsupported at best and without any checks and balances at worst.
The Solution: Being a board chair is not only a big responsibility, but one that includes many people relying on the board chair’s presence and input to get the entire team’s work done. It is important for potential board chairs to understand the time commitment and duties before they assume the chair position. Taking a position for namesake only is unfair to the organization and everyone involved in actualizing its mission. If something unavoidable causes the board chair to become unavailable, the vice chair should formally be asked to cover some or all of the board chair’s duties. In extreme cases, the board chair may be asked to step down early by the Governance or Leadership Development Committee. Leaving the executive director to run the show and the board without a partner is both dangerous and negligent.
The Micromanager communicates a complete lack of trust to all involved, creating a culture of second guessing, hidden agendas and resentment. This discourages leadership cultivation and partnership while simultaneously encouraging frustration and sometimes, secret coalition building. The Micromanager makes it impossible to have a satisfying or meaningful experience as an executive director or trustee, effectively crushing an atmosphere that promotes growth and stakeholder partnership in the organization. This can quickly lead to losing a great executive director and valuable trustees, as well as set up roadblocks for attracting and retaining functional leadership at every level.
The Solution: The question we always ask is why Micromanagers feel the need to be in the weeds. If there are no legitimate reasons to distrust, the Micromanager needs help remembering the difference between governance and management and that the board’s role is to take the 20,000 feet above view regarding sustaining and growing the organization, as well as managing its risks. Governance is about leading for the future and setting strategy, not managing the day to day operations. The Micromanager also needs help understanding how this behavior disincentivizes ownership by others working on behalf of the organization, which may have long term ramifications including interfering with the advancement of the organization’s mission, and detracting and deterring functional leadership. By nature, Micromanagers find it extremely difficult to have confidence in others to do their jobs. The biggest challenge organizations need to address with Micromanagers is the executive director and Micromanager negotiating an appropriate level of coordination and reporting to give the Micromanager comfort while simultaneously ensuring enough breathing room for the team to do its work without constant supervision.
The Insulator is invested in having board meetings go as smoothly as possible with no surprises. On the surface, this sounds fantastic, but rigorous discussion on strategic issues is essential to good board and organizational functioning. The Insulator tries to shelter the board from having difficult conversations by working out every possible solution before the meeting, having pre-meetings before the board meeting with trustees who might challenge the outcome of board discussions, and by pushing a highly polished agenda that leaves little room for questions and discussion. The Insulator creates a board with tunnel vision and a board who feels forced to rubber stamp initiatives, potentially leading to disengaged trustees who feel little ownership over moving the organization forward.
The Solution: Many nonprofit boards have made considerable progress in working with all trustees in highly valued partnership. In the past, board meetings were often staged. Executive committees met ahead of time and pre-determined the questions presented, information to be reported, and pushed desired outcomes. Today most boards no longer retain all powerful executive committees. Rather, the goal is to use board meetings to draw on the collective wisdom and expertise of the individuals around the table. The Insulator may be living in a time warp and the board should engage a governance expert or coach to help the board understand current thinking on best practice for well-run boards. The benefits of an engaged and educated board far exceed the headaches that can come with taking the time to hear and partner with all trustees.
The Spotlighter has a gift both for making a mountain out of a molehill and for making one issue seem like the only issue of relevance. The Spotlighter often mistakes the loudest voices for the truth and has difficulty looking at challenges and achievements in the context of the organization’s broader picture. The Spotlighter often relies on a very small and like-minded inner circle for feedback, which negates the possibility of understanding the fullest picture of the organization and its myriad facets. The Spotlighter can be blind to the organization’s true challenges, opportunities, and successes making it nearly impossible to be a good ambassador, meet the organization’s mission, and strategize effectively for its future.
The Solution: The Spotlighter will benefit most from partnering with a confident and seasoned executive director or past board chair who has the time to listen to the Spotlighter’s concerns and offer a fuller context and picture of the organization that includes historical knowledge of how the organization has managed past challenges well. The executive director or past board chair can and should steer conversations toward immediate initiatives and strategies that need to be addressed. The Spotlighter needs reassurance that his or her concerns are being considered but also needs firm reminders of the organization’s entire mission and the broad lens needed to be used for progress to thrive. Spotlighters need help keeping their eyes on the prize!
The Scaredy Cat
The Scaredy Cat is most comfortable listening and waiting. Often a superb consensus and partnership builder, the Scaredy Cat offends no one. However, the Scaredy Cat is plagued by analysis paralysis and prevents progress by being terrified of taking a hard stand or making a definitive strategic move. Scaredy Cats are often terrible facilitators who are nice, well-meaning board chairs but run boring, unproductive and disengaging meetings. It can be lonely at the top and it is often easiest to maintain the status quo. However, the fear of making a mistake or offending others can also thwart any possibility of innovation or forward movement.
The Solution: Creating a culture that encourages calculated risk taking or “failing forward” may help the Scaredy Cat. It is important to remind the Scaredy Cat that strong leaders facilitate teams to take decisive action. High functioning trustees take collective responsibility for the health of the board and its work to move the organization forward, not tread water. Scaredy Cats will benefit from a calm and seasoned executive director or prior board chair who will remind the Scaredy Cat not only that even the best board chairs make mistakes, but that inaction in and of itself is a risk all on its own. In the famous words of Wayne Gretsky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
The Power Tripper
The Power Tripper uses the board chair position for cache and seeks the limelight to increase personal status. Though Power Trippers have potential to be great board chairs, there is equal potential for Power Trippers to supersede the organization’s mission with their own desire to elevate their own prestige.
The Solution: Power Trippers can be a wonderful asset to an organization, and they will benefit most from learning that great leadership intrinsically commands respect from others. Being an exceptional ambassador helps Power Trippers take advantage of being present and visible in the community while advancing the mission of the organization. Executive directors and development directors should manage and leverage the Power Trippers’ desire for the spotlight for the benefit of the organization. Other highly-respected, visible community leaders can be powerful mentors to Power Trippers helping them see that outstanding service to the organization will compel others to hold Power Trippers in high esteem.
Are there other board chair characters you have encountered or do you recognize any characteristics of these archetypes yourself? Being a board chair is a difficult job, and the skills needed are not necessarily innate. However, steps can be taken to set the board chair up for success starting with the nominating process.
It is important for an organization to understand and be able to articulate why it chose a specific individual to be board chair and to share that information when asking an individual to chair the board. Potential board chairs will benefit from knowing what organizations are expecting them to bring to the table in their work and what innate skills a potential board chair has that the organization hopes to capitalize upon. A frank conversation about the time commitment required should be had and the board chair should have a chance to speak with past board chairs and the executive director before accepting.
We recommend that the organization provide leadership development opportunities for their incoming board chairs, either through attending conferences or through board leadership coaching. Though coaching and training ideally occur at the beginning of or just before a board chair’s tenure, board chairs and organizations can benefit from guidance at any point during the board chair’s tenure. Yearly board evaluations can also provide important insights for the board chair and provide an opportunity for the Governance or Leadership Development Committee to discuss how things are going and where there might be room for improvement.
As executive directors work for the Board, it can be difficult for executive directors to give frank, critical feedback to the board chair. Executive directors can do their part by negotiating their working relationship with the board chair at the beginning of his or her term and addressing communication styles and preferred ways of working together, including how often they will have regularly scheduled meetings and how they will create a working relationship that includes trust and opportunities for honest feedback.
Finally, it cannot be said often enough: term limits, term limits, term limits. They are what allow great leaders to give it their all for a defined period of time and also give boards an exit strategy for board chairs who behave badly.
Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching. She is a frequent speaker, trainer, workshop presenter and facilitator. Nanette is the author of “On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service.” She can be reached at email@example.com
Kathy Cohen, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist and experienced nonprofit board president who provides governance and development consulting and coaching for nonprofit organizations. Her practice is focused on helping nonprofit executives and boards become more focused, efficient, collaborative and impactful. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org