Q: About a year ago our board brought on a director that made a significant donation to the organization. It appears he intends to make a similar donation each year. The problem is that the culture of our board is one of partnership and this man is bossy, disrespectful to the ED and her staff and is sure he is always right. He tends to derail conversations, arguing minutia until everyone else is ready to scream.
We’d like to save his donations, but he isn’t a great fit for our board. Do you have any thoughts for us? Should we just cut bait or spend the time and energy trying to socialize this man? Is socialization even possible?
A: The situation you describe is the very reason why I have repeatedly preached in this column about both shying away from putting donors on the board – especially if the primary reason for making the offer is that they have given a big gift – and taking the time to cultivate people prior to determining if they should be offered a seat on the board. The first proviso is due to the fact that I’ve seen far too many individuals who use their money as a club: “Do it my way or I take my marbles and go home.” Such a condition hardly ensures good governance! The second proviso comes from years of observing that the more time the board and prospective director spend in courtship, the better chance of a happy, long-term marriage between the two.
Given you already have this “gentleman” on board, let’s talk about moving forward. While eventually you may conclude that you must, in your words, “cut bait,” there are a few things you can try first.
Understand that most people are not cantankerous just for the sake of being cantankerous. They usually have a reason for acting the way that they do that to them makes sense. So, when your ornery director acts up in meetings, begin by asking him for this thinking on the matter. Probe his responses to make sure everyone comprehends from where he is coming. He may actually have a critical contribution to make to benefit the organization. If he is confident about his position and the rest of the board remains less so, give him a chance to prove the validity of his proposition by taking on the responsibility for piloting the direction he feels is right. If nothing else, that will keep him busy and out of everyone else’s hair. Perhaps he may even prove his point to the rest of you.
If that doesn’t work, it is time for the board chair to sit down for a one-on-one with this man. The approach I would take is to begin by acknowledging that you (and here I’m referring to the board chair) believe that he is acting in what he believes to be the organization’s best interest, but that he may have been feeling some push back from the rest of the board. Indicate that this discussion is designed to ensure that his board experience is rewarding – for him, his colleagues and the organization. Ask him how he feels his tenure on the board is going so far. Is he getting from the experience what he expected? If not, what is missing? Is there something the organization could provide that would enhance his experience? Ask, too, what he feels he is contributing to the board. By listening carefully, you may discover the key to unlocking this man’s positive behaviors and shutting out the negative ones.
Still perceiving a problem with him? Switch tactics a bit. Indicate that you appreciate his propensity to challenge the status quo because that is the job of a good board member. But, remind him that the culture of your board is one of partnership, trust and respect. Indicate that others on the board are not feeling a sense of partnership, trust or respect when they deal with him. In fact, they are taking the challenges personally and this is undermining the effectiveness of the board. Ask him if he sees some other ways he could get across his messages that would be seen as less confrontational to the others and more in line with the organization’s norms. Assuming he does, ask him if he would commit to trying those other approaches over the next year.
If during this or subsequent conversations it is apparent that he is not interested in changing his ways, explain to him that the board has many substantive issues to deal with. It cannot afford to take time away from these issues to deal with the multitude of different personalities that exist on the board. Suggest that since he doesn’t see himself conforming to the board norms that perhaps he might be better suited to work for the organization in another capacity where he could run his own show. Ask him what his interests might be and/or suggest some areas in which his talents and personality might actually be a plus.
It is possible that he will assert that he will only serve on the board and that the organization must take him warts and all. In that case, it is time for a divorce. Thank him for his dedication to the organization this past year, but indicate that the organization cannot operate with his club over its head. Let him go. You will find another director and you will find another donor. You will also have the peace in the house you need to move closer to achieving your vision.