When adding board members, start by subtracting

I’ve taken several dozen boards through the process of board self-assessment, and one thing that emerges over and over again is the frustration that active board members have about inactive board members—those board members who miss more meetings than they attend, rarely participate in committee meetings, and yet still fill a seat. By tolerating the behavior of these board members you unintentionally send the signal that, “this is ok,” or that you have different standards for different board members.

Sadly, these board members too often continue to “serve” year after year and even get renewed for a second or third term, usually because no one will have the conversation that really needs to happen: “I know you’ve been busy and are pulled in a lot of different directions, but the board and our organization really need your active involvement. I would like to be able to count on you in the year ahead, but I want to give you a chance to let me know if you don’t think that will be possible.”

As board chair, I encourage you to be the one to have these conversations. Don’t expect the chief executive to do this work—that’s not fair. Nor should you anticipate that others will step forward. Of course, you can duck the issue and wait for the end of his or her term, but there is no guarantee that he or she will leave the board even then. I had one of these conversations with a board member who said, “Jeff, I tried to resign two years ago, but they told me that they needed me in order to not dip below the minimum number of board members required by our bylaws.” Given the opportunity, this board member was ready to move on, but we hadn’t let him. We had done him and the organization a disservice by extending his term.

Don’t think that others don’t notice or don’t care. They do. By helping board members to leave gracefully you begin to reshape the board and the culture. Then, as you recruit new board members, you’ll send the message that, “This is a board where attendance is expected and participation matters.”

Yes. I know. This isn’t perfect. Sometimes those board members recommit only to let you down again. And saying goodbye to board members is especially hard if recruiting new board members is a challenge, but holding onto board members who aren’t carrying their weight isn’t the answer and only hurts morale among those who do.

Find a way to have the conversation with your inactive board members. You will be doing your organization and your board a tremendous service, and odds are that no one else will do it.

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected]