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20 common characteristics of a dysfunctional board … and how to avoid them

Part 1

1.    Board meetings are unspeakably boring and/or interminably long.

Probably the number one reason for a board's ineffectiveness, this problem is usually caused by a poor meeting structure and lack of discipline.

Remedies:

  • The agenda is the most important tool in creating effective board meetings so take some time to get it right. Ensure that agendas are brief, relevant, logically presented and distributed well before meetings. Importantly, minimise "for noting" agenda items – if a decision is not needed at that meeting, the item may not need to be on the agenda at all.
  • Think about allocating a set amount of time for each item to be discussed – this need not be followed strictly but will help to provide some structure to the meeting.
  • If meeting times are being blown out by rambling board members, put in place time limits on individual contributions. 
  • Start meetings on time, even if people are running late.
  • Ensure all board members know the meeting rules and are committed to following them. Undertake a board training course if necessary.
  • Think about the effectiveness of the board chair. If the chair is unable to keep order or keep the meeting on track, s/he may need to undertake some training.
  • See the Board business help sheets for more meeting tips.

2.    Board members are unclear about their responsibilities.

It is frighteningly common for people to begin their role as a board member without being clear of their roles and responsibilities. This is not only legally dangerous but is almost sure to impede the effectiveness of the board.

Remedies:

  • Ensure all new board members are fully briefed about the contribution and commitment required of them. Give every new board member a written job description.
  • Put in place an induction process for all new board members that involves discussion about and clarification of roles and responsibilities. See the Developing an effective induction process help sheet for ideas on how to do this.
  • Carry out annual training sessions for the board to revisit and renegotiate each member's roles and responsibilities.

3.    Board members don't take their role seriously.

This is a similar problem to number two above, but a more difficult one to tackle as it involves dealing with attitudes, rather than a mere lack of information. There is an alarming tendency for some not-for-profit board members to take their roles less seriously than they would a company board position – despite the fact that the legal requirements for each are identical.

Remedies:

  • Ensure that all new and existing board members are aware of their roles and responsibilities, particularly when it comes to financial and legal obligations. Our Community's handbook, Surviving and thriving as a safe, effective board member, is a good place to start. The Board responsibilities help sheets also have some information on board members' legal and financial duties.
  • Pay for board members to attend an outside training course on board responsibilities, or put in place your own training session.

4.    Board meetings are enjoyable but decisions are rarely made.

This problem can be caused by a number of factors, including structural and operational deficiencies.

Remedies:

  • Ensure that the board is being provided with enough information before and during meetings to allow it to make a thoughtful decision. Meeting papers should be comprehensive (but not packed with irrelevant information).
  • Think about the board's size and structure and whether it may be too big and ungainly to carry out its role effectively.
  • Examine the conduct of your board meetings to see if improvements need to be made (see number one above for tips).
  • Ensure the board's mission and vision are restated and/or reviewed from time to time to make sure members are focused on the future direction of the organisation.

5.    Decisions are made but they aren't followed through / implemented.

Again, there could be structural and operational problems at play here.

Remedies:

  • Take another look at your board's committees and sub-committees. Do they meet regularly? Are their meetings conducted efficiently? Are committee members committed to their roles? Are they led by an effective committee chair? Is everyone aware of their responsibilities?
  • Ensure that tasks are assigned and that minutes record to whom all tasks have been assigned. Follow up on the progress of assigned tasks during every regular meeting.

6.    The board's decisions are inconsistent.

Boards are often accused of being inconsistent in their decision-making – approving one course of action one month and rejecting a similar proposal the next. This can lead to uncertainty and frustration among the community group's staff, members and other stakeholders.

Remedies:

  • Ensure all board members are conversant with and committed to the mission and vision of the community group, as well as its long and short-term goals.
  • Ensure the board has developed a range of policies to guide board members in their conduct and decision-making. Policies could cover issues such as ethics and conduct, volunteer management, financial management, accountability, and so on. See the Navigating the key documents help sheet and the Policy Bank for more information about what types of policies a board might develop.
  • Ensure policies are well-articulated, clearly understood and strictly adhered to. All meeting agenda items should refer to any policies the issue touches upon.

7.    The board has a terrible relationship with the community group's staff.

This problem has the ability to undermine the very foundations of a community group. While the board can be considered the "mind" of the organisation, staff members are the body – and neither can survive without the other.

Remedies:

  • Make sure that the respective roles and responsibilities of board and staff members have been discussed and defined – preferably in writing. This will minimise situations where the CEO tries to run the board – or the board tries to micro-manage the staff.
  • There should be a structured process in place for recruiting and monitoring the organisation's CEO, providing feedback where necessary. If the board feels the CEO is not performing properly, corrective action should be taken.
  • See the Board-Staff-Volunteers help sheet for more tips on managing board and staff relationships.

8.    The board is constantly accused of being out of touch with the community group's members.

A good relationship between the board and the community group's members is as important as a good relationship between the board and the organisation's staff. If the members are not happy with the conduct and direction of the group, they will have little incentive to stay and work for the success of the group.

Remedies:

9.    Board members do not get along; conflicts are common.

Some conflict within a board is not only inevitable but is actually desirable – the most effective boards are those that invite differences of opinion. However, too much conflict can become a destructive force in a board.

Remedies:

  • Think about the root cause of the conflict and try to treat that – for example, does one party feel others are not pulling their weight? Does someone feel they are not being listened to? Is there a personality clash? See the Dealing with difficult board members help sheets for more ideas on how to deal with discord within a board.
  • Consider holding a retreat or social event to allow board members to interact outside the pressures of the boardroom environment. Talk about the need for all members to focus on the organisation's overall mission, rather than the interests of individuals.

10.    The board is dominated by a clique.

While it is common for similar-minded individuals to join forces on particular issues, it can become quite damaging to the board dynamics if the remaining members are consistently having their opinions overruled. Constantly defeated board members are likely to lose interest in their role and conflicts could result.

Remedies:

  • The chair must take the lead in ensuring that all members' opinions are heard during debates and that all members are given an equal vote. Of course, if one group has the numbers, they will always win the vote; that's democracy.
  • Think about putting in place sub-committees to deal with specific issues so that the power structures of the full board can be diluted, or at least shared.

11.    The organisation does not have enough money to function properly.

This is a potentially fatal problem for not only the board but for the community group it is serving. While most community groups operate on a shoestring budget, they must have enough funds to pay the bills and carry out programs.

Remedies:

  • This is not a problem that should be dealt with by a quick-fix. Strict procedures must be put in place immediately to ensure the organisation's financial status is improved and regulated. Refer to the Board responsibilities help sheets for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.

12.    There is a distinct lack of leadership in the board.

The quality of leadership is hard to define – but you know it when you see it. And you are most likely to recognise its worth when it is absent. A competent, efficient and inspiring chair is probably the greatest asset a board can possess.

Remedies:

  • Some leaders are born, but most need some help to develop their skills. The board needs to put in place strategies for building leadership skills. An easy way to do this is to share around committee chair positions so people can get some practice in a leadership role. It is also a good idea to have board members serve as a deputy chair before they are put forward for the chair's position.
  • Leadership courses can also be useful – see Our Community's free database of leadership courses for more information. The Our Community Leadership Centre has a range of other useful resources, including help sheets and interviews with great Australian leaders.

13.    The board has become unstable because of a high turnover of members.

There is often a regular turnover in membership of community group boards. This in itself should not be considered unhealthy as new members can bring new ideas and perspectives and can often reinvigorate a stale board. However, too much transition all at once can be bad for a board, particularly if replacements are hard to find.

Remedies:

  • If there are a lot of members resigning before their terms have expired, it is crucial that the board discovers what may be causing the exodus – there may be serious structural problems at play. Conduct a private exit interview with outgoing members to find out their reasons for leaving. Carry out a confidential survey with remaining members to find out if other people are unhappy with how the board is operating. Take immediate steps to fix any problems.
  • Ensure that the board has an effective succession and recruitment plan in place so that institutional knowledge can be preserved and there is an orderly process for replacing outgoing members. An effective induction process is also crucial to minimise disruption when board members leave and others take their place. The Board building help sheets have more information on these topics.

14.    The board is stale – things coast along but nothing new ever happens.

"The way things are always done" is not necessarily "the best way". Boards need to be constantly reviewing what they do and how it they do it. Staleness most often results from too little turnover in board members, or failure to recruit enthusiastic or innovative board members.

Remedies:

  • Ensure there is a well-thought-out recruitment strategy in place to identify the skilled and enthusiastic prospective members the board needs. Consult the Board building section for more tips on finding and recruiting great board prospects.
  • Consider putting in place maximum terms for board members to ensure a regular and orderly turnover of members.

15.    Board members are bored.

It is normal for a person's interest in their board role to wax and wane a little depending on what projects are on the boil at any given time. However, long-term or widespread boredom is highly likely to create a treadmill straight out the boardroom door. Even if bored board members stay on, they are unlikely to fulfill their responsibilities well if they feel disengaged.

Remedies:

  • Look at your board's structure to see if it may be creating boredom; for example, if the board is too big, there may be some board members who will have nothing to do.
  • Ask members what interests them and try to cater for their interests when board roles are allocated – by nominating them for a committee that interests them, for example.
  • Rotate committee memberships to ensure that members do not become stuck on one particular issue.

16.    The board ticks along nicely in calm times but can't cope with change or crises.

Every board will at some point have to face the prospect of change or upheaval. Getting spooked by such challenges can have serious damaging effects on the long-term future of the organisation.

Remedies:

  • The board's structures should be examined to see if there are ways they can be improved. Is there a clear line of command during times of crisis? Are there clear lines of communication? Are board members kept abreast of the evolving situations and encouraged to take ownership of them?
  • After a crisis has passed, undertake a review to look carefully at how the situation arose, how it was handled and what the board could have been done better. Encourage all board members to participate in the review process.
  • If necessary, consider revamping the board's membership to bring in people who are more experienced or more adept at coping with change. Refer to the Recruiting new board members help sheet for tips on how to put in place a targeted recruitment process.

17.    The board seems to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Poor management is usually at the root of this problem. Most boards will face crises from time to time but constant turmoil is a sure sign that something needs to change.

Remedies:

  • The board needs to give risk management a higher priority. Risk management is not just about responding to a crisis, but learning to identify things that might cause a crisis and working to prevent them. Refer to Our Community's Insurance & Risk Management Centre for more information on this topic.

18.    Board members seem out of their depth. No one seems to know what they are doing.

This is a common problem in new boards or those with inexperienced members. No one is born with board experience, everyone has to start somewhere and enthusiasm can go a long way to making up for lack of experience – however, if everyone on the board is similarly inexperienced, progress is likely to be slow.

Remedies:

  • Ad-hoc board building with little thought given to the overall makeup of the board is likely to have created this problem. Now is the time to put in place a structured recruitment process to ensure the problem does not recur in the future. See the Board building help sheets for more information.
  • Put in place an orientation program to ensure all new or struggling members are brought up to speed quickly. Provide them with as many resources as possible – including access to these help sheets, and a copy of the Our Community publication, Surviving and thriving as a safe, effective board member.
  • Consider enrolling members in a board training course or, if finances don't permit, hold one of your own, perhaps inviting more experienced board members along to answer questions and offer advice.
  • Set up a mentoring program, putting new or struggling members in touch with more experienced board members (not necessarily from your board) who may be able to guide their development. Take a look at the Networking and mentoring help sheet for more information.

19.    The board has a poor standing or low profile in the community.

Flying under the radar may make you feel safer but it will do your group no favours when it comes to advancing your mission, attracting new members and garnering support and funding. Even worse than an invisible public profile, a poor public profile will make carrying out your work almost impossible.

Remedies:

  • The board needs to make a concerted effort to educate the community about the role and mission of the community group it is governing – and that means undertaking a publicity campaign. Put out a media release, put on a special event, take out an ad – do something! See the Board responsibilities help sheets for information on advertising, media relations, marketing, lobbying and advocacy.
  • You also need to put in place day-to-day processes for communicating with the media and the community (for example, you most definitely need a media spokesperson).
  • Sometimes a poor public profile can be a legacy of past actions or inactions of a board, often involving members who have long gone. Use your networks to spread the word that the board is "under new management".
  • Ensure your board has in place systems and procedures that encourage accountability and transparency – this will win you trust and create a better public opinion of your board. Check out the Becoming a more accountable, transparent and consultative board help sheet for more information on this topic.

20.    Communication is a problem. Board members don't know what their colleagues are doing, the staff don't know what the board is doing and the members don't seem to know what anyone is doing.

Clear and effective communication is very important to ensure that everyone is "on the same page" and heading in the same direction.

Remedies:

  • Consider developing a communications policy that deals with communication both within the board (taking in the use of emails, procedures for briefings, official lines of communication, etc.) and between the board and others (newsletters, briefings, speaking to the media, formal consultation processes, etc.). Communication needs to be two-way – not just from the top down – so ensure your processes allow for ideas and comments to be fed to the board from members and staff. Consult the Becoming a more accountable, transparent and consultative board help sheet for more ideas on this topic.

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