I sat down (well, virtually) the other day with Sandra Giarde, Executive Director of the California Landscape Contractors Association to talk about a hot topic – rogue board members.
(Want more on this topic? Check out our Association Chat webcast here)
Sandra, you’ve presented at several association conferences about how to deal with a “turbo bully” on the board and this seems to be a topic that resonates with everyone, given how popular this session has been! I was curious to ask you some questions about this from a board culture perspective. Thanks for taking the time!
1) What in a board culture can allow turbo bullies (in any form) to arise?
Boards are complicated beings and, as such, there are quite a few factors that will create an environment ripe for the rising of a turbo bully. Some of these are:
- A board culture of “just fill the board seat…it doesn’t matter who” is one of the biggest factors. It creates a board without a shared vision, mission and purpose.
- Lack of a continuous leadership development and recruitment process. Similarly, lack of evaluation of potential board members that would otherwise expose those who are not a good fit for your board/organization.
- Little to no training on what it means to be a board member. Failing to understand the role, legal implications, the role of service to the organization and the fiduciary duties creates a board where they don’t know boundaries and consequences.
- Lack of documented, shared and communicated policies and procedures outlining how the board conducts their business and how to handle dissent and conflict.
2) How should board culture address the issue of conflict?
It should be acknowledged that leadership is messy work and conflict is part of the process. Too many people are scared of conflict but sometimes what comes out of it is a better, more thorough decision making process.
Boards should have an environment and culture where dissent is encouraged and supported as part of the decision making process and make that known to board members upon their joining the board. Having a conversation about “this is how we interact during our work and here are behaviors that we deem to be unacceptable” puts all on the same page and prevents the “Oh, I didn’t know” excuse.
3) What might be done from a culture perspective to make sure conflict within the board is handled before it gets to “turbo bully ” stage?
Looking at all sides of a debate in a respectful way is an ingredient of creating good outcomes. Making sure all participants have a chance to be heard helps immensely but know the difference between “a chance to be heard” and “monopolizing the conversation.”
The culture of how a board interacts with their Chief Staff Executive is critical. Having a CSE who is knowledgeable, informed and experienced about how associations and boards function helps in preventing the rise of a turbo bully. Having an environment where the CSE is seen as a resource and helper whose opinions and feedback are respected and considered is also key.
Finally, boards need to be courageous and call out the bad behavior of a turbo bully when it first starts to arise. Boards have to self police because unlike pro sports, we don’t have a referee in the room calling fouls. Sweeping it under the rug and letting it continue will set a board on a path to bigger problems in the future.
4) Is the turbo bully scenario purely about interpersonal and emotional intelligence? Or is there something about the way association boards work in general that feeds big egos and leads to the potential for conflict?
I don’t think it is entirely the process of how boards work that lends itself to turbo bullies. Instead, I think it is the prestige that sometimes accompanies board service that makes it challenging.
In many organizations, board service is an aspirational role whereby the board member is perceived as a leader and someone of higher caliber. For those leaders without a servant’s heart, the head and ego can swell very quickly. Lack of recognition that the organization is not “yours” but, instead, is entrusted to you as a steward and safe keeper is a big contributor to the turbo bully problem. Like physicians, maybe board members should start each meeting by jointly proclaiming out loud “First, do no harm” as a reminder of their place in the larger scheme of things.
If a board has a culture, real or perceived, that roles like the Chairperson or President get to “do whatever they want” instead of the correct role of facilitator and leader, then you’ll set a stage ripe for the growing of a turbo bully who serves because they want to get to that position and be “boss of all the things.”
5) How do you make sure a board’s culture is accountable to the culture of the rest of the organization?
By not operating in the shadows or behind the metaphorical closed door. Hold meetings, town halls and webinars with your members or the rank and file of your organization where updates are given and, more importantly, questions asked. Provide updates in your publications. The board is not an ivory tower and the members are not subjects to be ruled. Everyone is in this together.
What tools are you providing your board to enable better communication and collaboration?