Both my reading of the governance literature and my own experience tells me that often board members and CEO’s agree that boards are not adding value to their organizations. This is particularly the case in the non-profit arena. However both for-profit and non-profits alike lament that there is high turnover of board members. Some have reached out to us for ideas on how to improve this unsatisfactory condition. Hence, the topic of this blog post. I am going to focus on the challenge of recruiting and retaining those board members you lament losing.
Individuals seek or agree to join boards for a myriad of reasons. What most hold in common is that they have a commitment or passion for the purpose of the organization. What is the value they envision adding in joining the board? They want to see services improved, users of services more satisfied, services expanded and resources better utilized etc. They are hoping that their experience, position in the community and analytical skills can lead to better decision making or better supported decisions.
Thus, they judge their value to the organization on whether they feel as if they contributed to these positive changes. Often, they are underwhelmed by the results and ultimately leave the board seeking an opportunity to make better use of the time they are contributing. In the board member’s mind, the equation is “if the organization is not better because I am here, then I am going to do something else where I do make a difference”.
So now, let’s examine the source of the problem and some ideas for how to turn this around.
Sources behind failing board member retention
- Lack of board member orientation: Organizations generally don’t do this well and don’t do it early enough. Pre-occupied with delivering services and handling day to day problems, this task takes a back seat. The result is that board members feel ill equipped to contribute until their third meeting or so, basically by orienting themselves. In short, we start off on the wrong foot.
- Lack of board training: There is a body of knowledge and set of skills needed for board members to be effective. The skills are somewhat unique to boardsmanship. The irony is that although many boards cite the need for this, there is little demand for governance training as reflected in data on Internet searches for board training and related subjects. Again, lack of training means a delay in board members feeling empowered and thus able to contribute early. Additionally, the need for board training is nearly constant as new board members join nearly every year. The distinction here is that “orientation” is about learning the business, history, context and operating condition of the organization. Training is about boardsmanship which applies to an organization of any type.
- Lack of tools: The basic tools for effective governance are effective strategic planning (the board is directing the organization), policy development (the board is protecting the assets and providing oversight) and analysis of metrics on performance (the board understands the true condition of the organization and when a change in plan or policy is needed). Without these three tools, boards flounder. There is frustration because board members do not feel they are governing or in control of the company, but rather feel at the effect of management, i.e. rubber stamping.
- Poor board packets: Incomplete packets and packets delivered late is a major source of dissatisfaction. Board members feels as it they are not being set up to succeed and not respected.
- Poor communications in the board room: The essence here is whether or not members feel as if their opinions are listened to and considered by the board and management. The poor communications can be between board members, with management or both. CEO’s or individual board members who seek to dominate the conversation lead to dissatisfaction of board members.
There are other factors to be sure but these are the major sources of the problem in my experience.
The solution to fix board member recruitment and retention
The obvious answer is eliminate the sources of dissatisfaction listed above.
- To start this, get in the habit of evaluating every meeting. Either by discussion in executive session or using a survey instrument, query board members at each meeting re. how could this meeting have gone better? What could the chair, CEO, fellow board members and yourself have done or not done that would have had you feeling better about the meeting? Then, begin addressing the dissatisfiers in priority order.
- Each year, evaluate your board members’ level of satisfaction and commitment to continue, rather like the “stay surveys” HR departments use for employees.
- Be sure that you have the key tools for effective governance – strategic plan, board policy and key metrics – in place. If you don’t have them currently, present to the board your plan to put them in place.
- Lastly, hat your chairman with responsibility for all of the above. It is not the job of the chief executive to train or develop the board. It is that person’s job to do the orientation or be sure it is carried out.
In summary, the way to attract and retain good board members is to provide them the training, tools and knowledge to add real value to the organization, and to have a process to monitor whether they feel as if they are indeed adding value, implementing improvements as needed.