Addressing Underperforming Directors

Ignoring the behaviors and activities of an underperforming director can have dramatic consequences. Yet among a group of peers such as a board of directors too often these scenarios go unaddressed. It may be easier in the short run to avoid dealing with the problem but it rarely gets easier. This is, in fact, a duty of the board.

By Kevin Smith

“Sadly, boards are more likely to replace a CEO than oust one of its troublesome board members.” Beverly Behan, Board Consultant

Someone is going to call me out on the fact that I’ve used this quote before. I hope they do. It means someone is paying attention. (See the original post here.) But this one needs further attention because I don’t believe circumstances have changed much, if at all. It’s a doozy of quote too. (Tim and I used it in our book too. It makes a dramatic point!).  

 The first time I used the quote in a blog post was in 2016. In my mind that’s long enough to warrant revisiting. But in that post we were writing about renomination and what directors need to demonstrate to earn renomination to the board ballot.

Today, I’m writing about addressing underperformance and having uncomfortable conversations. This is about confronting issues, rather than ignoring them or simply having hushed discussions in hallways after meetings, where nothing gets resolved.

Common Problematic Behaviors

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Here are some of the negative/troubling things that I hear about around the country in my hundreds of conversations with directors, CEOs, senior leaders, as well as with others related to board work.

Directors who:

  • Fall asleep during board meetings
  • Are clearly never prepared
  • Are way, way off topic on a regular basis
  • Have experienced mental decline, age related or otherwise
  • Talk far too much (or far too little)
  • Bully staff and colleagues on the board
  • Don’t do what they agree to do (think of those who have to be chased down for everything and never hit a deadline)
  • Cannot let personal feelings and opinions go when the vote goes against them

I’m sure you can add your own examples. (And please do in the comments below. It helps others to know they’re not alone.) These are the most common ones I hear about. And you can let your imaginations run wild with the damage that these behaviors can cause to the board and the credit union. You may have some actual terrifying anecdotes. Don’t underestimate what’s at stake.

In previous blogs, you’ve read about the TEAM Resources approach to strategic governance via written policy to provide tools for managing these scenarios. But let’s talk about actually getting beyond the discomfort of the circumstances and dealing with humans in a way that doesn’t have to be confrontational or hurtful.

Addressing Behavior

  • First, remember your humanity and empathy. You have to confront the situation but it doesn’t have to be confrontational, negative and accusatory. Consider where this director may be coming from, and what they may be dealing with in their life. Keep the discussion as positive as possible.
  • Always start from an assumption of best intentions. Don’t presume malicious intent unless you have significant evidence of that.
  • Schedule a time to meet with the individual one-on-one. This is never something to address in front of a group.
  • Be specific about the behavior you are witnessing and how it may be coming across. “I noticed at the last board meeting that you didn’t seem engaged with the meeting. Your attention seemed to be somewhere else and you didn’t contribute as much as you have in the past.”
  • Ask about the circumstances and be ready to listen and really hear what is going on. Use active listening techniques.
  • Offer support. “How can I, and we as a board, help you so that you can fully perform your duties? What do you need?” You’ll be surprised how far this will get you, either in the desire for help or in the acknowledgement that the behavior is happening and needs to be addressed.
  • Be clear about what plan is in place and a timeline for making things better. “In the next two board meetings, can you try to make sure that you are not the first person to speak up so that we can make room for other voices? And we can see how that goes.”
  • Refer to your well-written governance policies that address how the board has agreed to work as a group. Remind them that this is what they signed and agreed to and that the current behavior violates the policy. “Part of our governance policy on behavior states, ‘Board members will be properly prepared for Board deliberation. This includes, but is not limited to, reading board packet materials in a timely manner, keeping up with industry trends and issues, ongoing training and education that is specific to the individual needs of each Board member.’ And you are not holding up your end of that requirement.” This approach keeps things formal and professional, and keeps your involvement at a professional and not a personal level.

Often, after taking these steps problem directors will see own up and offer to step down. Handled with compassion this doesn’t need to be a fight or a negative circumstance. Though, I can’t promise that this will always be the case. Humans can be messy. But I do know that this approach is far more effective than accusations and confrontations.

Whose Responsibility Is This?

The easy answer as to who should do this is the board chair. That really is part of the job description for someone who is primus inter pares, first among equals. So, if you’re not up to this kind of discussion you can lean in and realize that it is a skill that can be learned. Or, you may have to step back and recognize that by not taking on this task is dropping the ball for the job in a way that can damage not just the board, but the entire organization. If that’s the case, you might not be the right chair for the job. (Small consolation for some of you who “ended up” as chair, I know.)

But I also want to put it out there that it doesn’t have to be the chair’s job. Anyone on the board can take up this task. Remember, you are equals. And with the right kind of culture and trust, it’s reasonable that we should expect all directors to bear the weight of accountability for the group.  

Courage

What I’ve described requires some intestinal fortitude and won’t always work perfectly. It also provides some guidelines that make this less difficult with opportunities for very positive outcomes. If expectations are clear and agreed upon by the board as a whole, you have a foundation for addressing underperformance. But ignoring the situation can never be an option. There’s too much riding on the board.

 

As always, please tell me what you’ve tried and what I’m missing. I never claim to be perfect or completely comprehensive.

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