How to fix a divided board

by Robert C. Harris

photo by Getty Images

The executive director warned, “You should know we have a divided board.”

The concept was foreign to me. A board is a governing body authorized by law to serve the membership, advance the mission and make best use of resources. Members expect results from the leadership team.

When I hear of a divided board, I imagine disunity, disagreement, conflicting interests and highly emotional discussions.

I asked him to explain, “What is a divided board?”

“We have a subgroup of the board that disagrees with everything. They hold rump sessions to decide how they will vote. They cite policies and rules of order to obstruct progress.”

“These directors stay in the weeds. Their remarks and body language disparage the staff. They drop by the office prying staff for inside information,” he explained.

He described meetings as “painful” with minimal results. Other board members dread the meetings.

“In a divided board, nothing would get done if each person focused on personal interests. When they enter the boardroom, they represent the membership and advance a strategic plan, putting aside their feelings in order to act for the betterment of the association,” explains DaVina Lara, CEO at the Bridge Association of REALTORS®.

Addressing the Issues

Address these principles to fix a divided board.

Choice: Joining the board is a choice. For most people it is viewed as a civic duty or responsibility to an industry or community. It is accepted with pride. Resentment should not arise.

Teamwork: When you join a board, you work as a team. Respect, cooperation and collaboration are essential. Nobody is there to outshine other directors or receive personal gain.

Mission-Driven: Advancing the mission is the preeminent reason for a board to meet. Negativity and attitude will derail the board’s intentions.

Roadmap: In addition to the mission statement, a multi-year roadmap frames the work of the board. Discussion among directors should be framed by the strategic plan. Efforts not related to the plan would cause question as to how it made it on the board’s agenda.

Outside the Boardroom: Directors have authority from gavel to gavel. When the meeting is convened, they are expected to perform their duties according to governing documents, state and federal laws.

Decision-making authority ends when the meeting adjourns. Directors don’t use social media or chat groups to voice their opinions. The official spokesperson is the chief elected officer; he or she can delegate the authority, but no person may usurp it.

Board Staff Balance: The board and staff work as partners. The board governs and the staff manage. Each has a role described in organizational documents. Staff work for the executive director, not individual members of the board. Directors don’t drop by the office seeking personal privileges and favors.

Rump Sessions: Directors who meet to discuss the upcoming board agenda may be breaking a bond of trust, alienating others, and creating voting blocs before they have all the information. Directors with questions about the upcoming meeting should get the facts from the executive director, not a casual call or meeting with a subgroup of directors.

“Board members must maintain a focus on advancing the mission and serving the members. Directors with personal interests or unsanctioned authority create conflict and a divide. Bad behavior will be observed outside the board room,” said Jillian Heddaeus, CMP, IOM, Partners in Association Management.

A divided board is unthinkable. When members perceive disharmony in the leadership, they lose interest in the organization.

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