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Common board problems—and solutions

October 1, 2006
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A look at three areas that tend to plague relations with boards

In April, I again had the pleasure of being a presenter at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare's annual conference. My trainings were directed at behavioral health organization board members, and I was struck by how much more knowledgeable they were than the attendees I saw just a few short years ago when I presented at another National Council conference.

The participants had a deep thirst for information, especially in three areas, which I discuss below. If board members are asking about these topics, savvy CEOs may want to consider addressing them further with their boards.

The CEO/Board Relationship

The greatest concerns raised by board members at the National Council meeting dealt with the CEO/board relationship. As both the CEO of a behavioral health organization and a leadership development consultant, I am acutely aware of the board/CEO “marriage” dynamic. The relationship is symbiotic, with each needing the other to operate in an agreed upon balance of power, knowledge, and compatibility. When the relationship is out of balance (e.g., a board member wants to run things or the CEO keeps secrets from the board), sooner or later big problems will occur. As with marriage counseling, by the time there is recognition that a problem is at hand, it may be too late to avoid major conflicts.

Sometimes the problem lies with the board, sometimes with the CEO, but the resolution, if there is to be one, only comes about when both parties decide change is needed and both are willing to clear the air. A consultant (with good communications skills) may be helpful at clarifying the issues. Like most marriages, though, it often doesn't happen this way, and a “divorce” is too often the next step.

To avoid many misunderstood expectations, a CEO's contract/agreement should include clear descriptions of the job, salary and perks, boundaries, performance evaluation criteria, goals, etc. Board members regularly (at least annually) should evaluate the CEO's performance in writing. If a board fires a CEO but has not conducted performance reviews or provided him/her with written improvement tasks, I wouldn't be surprised if the board faces a lawsuit or an expensive buyout.

Both the board and CEO should keep in mind that the board specifies the mission and strategic direction (what should get done), while the management team determines the best way to achieve those objectives (how the job gets done). Although the concept sounds simple, it's the source of many board/CEO conflicts. The board and CEO should be acting as a team. If they are not, then it is the board's responsibility to replace the CEO or assemble a new board that can work well with management. It does not help the organization to have a CEO that the board does not respect or work well with, and the CEO would be the first to say so.

Information Sharing

Board members often know there are questions they should be asking, but they often don't know what these questions are. They ask about metrics (my word, not theirs) that they should be informed about. In fact, some board members who come from the business world want metrics and expect them, but they are disappointed when such data are not forthcoming. When these folks leave after a year or two on a board, it's a good bet that they are not getting what they need, reinforcing the stereotype of nonprofits as lightweights in the business world.

When this information is available, it must be shared. Many board members wonder if they know the “right” things, and if they know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. A few years ago, as part of a self-assessment process, a board member wrote that he saw only good news (Where was the bad?). The company was well run, and there wasn't very much bad news, but that point needed to be made to the board. And when there was bad news, it needed to be in front of the board clearly and quickly.

Board members need to be supplied with metrics—whether the results are good or bad. Here are some suggestions on making the data-sharing process easier:

  • Present metrics in a simple “dashboard” format (much like a car's dashboard displays important information), serving to both inform the board and make management decisions more transparent for board members. This is the best way to avoid problems, as the board can see them coming long before disaster strikes.

  • Don't overwhelm board members by giving them a lot of data all at once. Start simply. I recommend three groups of metrics to start with: financial, board-related, and operations. The number of groups, data points, sophistication of presentation, graphs and charts, etc., all can be tailored to the starting level of any board and expanded over time. With good forethought and planning, evolving to a metrics-driven board is not difficult, and usually makes board members more productive and gives them a sense of personal satisfaction.

  • Encourage board members to ask questions frequently and repeatedly until they are satisfied that they have been answered.

Problematic Board Members

At least once at every conference or board training I do I am likely to be quietly pulled aside and asked about what to do with a problematic board member: the board chair who won't retire, the board member who inserts himself into personnel and other day-to-day activities, or the finance committee chair who really doesn't understand behavioral health revenue systems, so instead immerses herself in the expense side, analyzing the monthly phone bill for personal calls.

To address such problems, the board should conduct a four-step approach. Note that four steps may be three steps too many for some boards, so this process can be done as separate steps over time if the board doesn't like to change too quickly.