Leadership

How Do You Fix a Board Power Struggle?

By / Aug 17, 2015 (stevanovicigor/ThinkStock)

An association’s guidelines won’t keep a board from becoming divisive—indeed, they can help sow discord. The fix may be as simple as agreeing on fundamental behaviors.

One lament among association executives might go something like this: “If only [board member] weren’t standing in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

A less common lament, but one also worth attending to: “If only the board-relationship structure we’ve created weren’t supporting unconscious biases that erode board unity.”

The latter statement is a little convoluted, but it speaks to the idea that complaints about the behavior of particular stakeholders may miss the point: The core issue may be the environment that those stakeholders were invited or elected into. That’s one of the themes of “Nonprofit Governance and the Power of Things,” a Nonprofit Quarterly article by Fredrik O. Andersson and Avery Edenfield, scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

So much of the success of the board-CEO relationship has to do with how discussions are framed.

Andersson and Edenfield’s study covers a lot of ground relating to the things besides the people in the boardroom that influence board dynamics. Some of them are the documents that drive the board’s work. As an example, they discuss the removal of a nonprofit leader from an organization, and how to some degree it was a function of leaders having a different relationship to the documents that shape the organization. New leaders, they write, “did not share the relationship to the texts that the original founders had. For example, the employee handbook was a relatively new document that came about because of tension over expectations of employees. Practices and agreements were inscribed in this handbook, which was then enrolled into the new network through multiple connections and with a variety of rhetorical consequences.”

The academese in that quote doesn’t make my heart sing either. But put more simply, the point is valid: Because how a board leads can often be a matter of interpretation, you can’t assume your guiding policies and practices alone will keep order. Which is where the CEO comes in.

That point was articulated in a similar, more association-specific way at “Executive Committees: Do’s, Don’ts and Damage Controls,” a Learning Lab at last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Detroit. Opening the session, Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO of Tecker International, said that management of executive committees is an area “where there are no best practices”—it’s up to each individual organization to determine what works. But so much of the success of the board-CEO relationship has to do with how discussions are framed.

Typically a CEO or executive committee may come to the full board with proposals for actions, which is fully within the guidelines that structure decision making. But there is a difference between a proposal for action that is presented as an opportunity for discussion, and one where decision has already been made and the larger board is invited only to rubber-stamp it. A rogue individual pushing an agenda in the former manner can complicate the life of an organization, even if he or she is working within legal bounds.

Tecker presented three scenarios from anonymous associations to show a few of the ways this problem manifests itself: The president-elect who wants to bully through a bylaws change, the president who pursued merger discussions with another association without consulting with the rest of the board, the president who busily engaged in management activities better left to staff. Nightmares all, but all cases where leaders were given a lot of leeway to interpret an association’s goals, without recognizing that interpreting an association’s goals is a fundamentally collaborative act.

One path toward a solution isn’t setting down more policies and rules, but thinking realistically about behavior and talking openly about the behaviors expected out of leaders. The handout for the Annual Meeting session includes a sample list of “board norms,” articulating collective expectations for relationships, conflict-management, communication, meeting preparation, and decisionmaking. The overall sensibility of these norms is such that it could easily be retitled Everything I Needed to Know About Association Governance I Learned in Kindergarten: Contribute ideas, respect differences, don’t interrupt, ask questions, plan ahead, show up on time, let everybody speak.

And yet, how many critical decisions get undone in the board room precisely because those simple norms get forgotten? Following those simple guidelines may not, in itself, make your organization the decisive and forward-thinking organization it wants to be. But it’s worth remembering that not being on the same page leads to the power imbalances that allow for rash decisions that make otherwise responsible board members disengage.

What do you do to establish engagement and avoid power struggles in your board? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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