You’ve Got the Right to Fight: Healthy dissent in the boardroom leads to better outcomes for your CU.

by Kevin Smith, Publisher, TEAM Resources
(A version of this post was originally published in the July CUNA Directors Newsletter.)

I’m here to start an argument. There. I said it. I mean it.

What I’d like to see is more arguing among credit union board members. What I am seeing is a bit too much harmony for my taste. And no, this isn’t about shadenfreude (no matter how much I like to say that word). This is about board engagement, and avoiding complacency. In general, I’m seeing and hearing about too much complacency.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Harmony on a board of directors is a good thing, to be fostered and cultivated. But if there are only unanimous votes, too much harmony, too much kumbaya … that’s a red flag for me. It usually means there isn’t enough thought going into the discussions and material at hand.

It is very easy to slide into a groove in the boardroom, to sleepily vote “AY” along with everyone else when a meeting is going long. But the board’s job is to represent the membership, which requires constant vigilance, and constant questioning. You must constantly consider, “What does this do for the members? How does this affect the safety and soundness of the credit union?” And a good, civil, thoughtful argument shakes awake the brain, and sharpen your senses. It will spark engagement.

Some boards have a natural devil’s advocate, which admittedly can get old or tiresome. Others look to assign that task on a rotating basis, just to keep everyone on their toes. This can work depending on your culture. It can also come across as stilted and artificial … not genuine.

What I see as more/most effective is when directors have done their homework, and have thought carefully about strategic items on the agenda, which organically leads to appropriate questions that ignite healthy debate.

You can’t just show up all of a sudden, after months of harmony, with your bad, new arguing self at the next meeting and start ranting like a lunatic without causing some concern. And upsetting the apple cart just for the sake of disruption isn’t effective either. So, how do you start to turn the “culture” ship around in a productive way if there’s not enough “arguing” or too much harmony?

Try these incremental approaches:

  • Be a good example for the boardroom – make sure you are thoroughly engaged and prepared for each meeting. Introduce, some slightly probing questions and remind everyone with, “I’m just trying to make sure that this is the best thing for our members.”
  • Be willing to talk about it – raise the issue for discussion if you think that the healthy dialogue is absent.
  • Be patient – an entrenched culture will take a while to change.
  • Be persistent – see above.

You can change the tone at the top without being confrontational if you go about it thoughtfully. Before you know it you will be arguing with the best of ‘em. All with the best interests of the membership at heart.

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