Engagement on the Board (and Committees)

Board Engagement

We can do hard things.

When there’s no boss in a group of peers, and there’s no paycheck tied to performance, how do you maintain engagement on the board (and committees)? Peer directors must hold each other accountable for the work that they do. But the real key is making sure that the work is meaningful and participants understand the impact they are having on the organization to fuel excitement.

By Kevin Smith

It hasn’t come up in a while, but recently at a board training engagement, I heard an old question. “Why do we use the term ‘volunteers’? Doesn’t that make this sound less important?” I’ve been through this debate a hundred times with people trying to name products and services for this audience. If you only say “board” it leaves out the supervisory and other committee members. So “volunteer” is the catch all term. But doesn’t this feel a bit like we’re filling boxes at the food pantry, or building houses with Habitat for Humanity? This is by no means any disparagement to this kind of work. It’s valuable and fulfilling work. But it really is a different kind of volunteering. Food pantry volunteering doesn’t have an oath and legal fiduciary duties.

What does it mean to be a "volunteer" at a credit union?

Sidebar: Unpacking the word “volunteer.”

And why am I bringing this up? Well, I’ve been approached several times recently to talk about how to get unengaged directors and committee members to step up their games. I’m hearing about volunteers that are not coming prepared, not being fully engaged, and worse.

So, what to do? After all, doubling the pay doesn’t have much kick. And there’s not really a boss. (No, the board chair has no more authority than any director.) You can, of course, remove a director, or ask him or her to step down. But let’s be honest, very few want to go this route. This requires a board vote that can be awkward.

There are rarely quick fixes. Here’s what we recommend you try:

Outline the expectations for the position in writing.

Make sure there are clear repercussions for not being engaged. This is a cultural issue. When the expectations are clear and written down it’s easier to hold each other accountable. And this doesn’t have to be confrontational or in front of the group. It’s usually up to the board chair to take on difficult conversations, but it doesn’t have to be. Have this discussion one on one. Empathize with the person. Find out if there are circumstances that are causing the disengagement and how the board can assist. But ask about and confront the situation from a place of caring. This helps to avoid anyone becoming defensive and angry.

Utilize board self-evaluations.

Self-evaluations set a tone that the board should always be improving, learning, and that you need to hold each other accountable. Set ground rules for this process: it’s not a “gotcha” session; the focus is improvement; and in general, when one or more directors says that they want to hear how they can improve, others will follow suit.

Be active and vocal about creating the right culture in the board room. 

The culture of a group will be absorbed by the participants. Don’t take anything for granted, and don’t let this be a passive element. Put it on the agenda and talk about it.

Remember:

  1. You may get what you tolerate.
  2. You have to have hard conversations sometimes. Keep it framed as the good of the credit union and the membership.
  3. The regulators are going to see this and it can be a problem for the credit union.
  4. Recruiting new directors should have a high bar with clearly written expectations. (And sitting directors must be living up to those expectations. No lip service!)

Unengaged volunteers are why the subjects of term limits and paying credit union directors comes up. These are two roundabout attempts at a solution for this problem. Both of these approaches can be problematic and very divisive. Create the culture that you want. It will not happen overnight, but the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get there.

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