Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mr. X's Dilemma - Stay or Go on a Nonprofit Board?

The other day an old friend and colleague told me a story, one that ends with an interesting question.  Here's the scenario: a gentleman, recently retired as a senior corporate executive is invited to join and accepts a position on a non-profit board of some prominence in his community, where he enjoys a fine reputation. Aside from his professional career, the man we'll call Mr. X, has served on a number of boards of notable nonprofit organizations.

He attends his first board meeting and at one point speaks up, raising a question of governance procedure, namely does the board engage in an annual self-evaluation? A noncommittal answer is given by the executive director who has served in that position for many years, in fact since the organization's founding. That evening Mr. X receives a phone call from the board Chair who in a chiding tone, tells him in future meetings to calm down, to cool his jets and not to be so aggressive.

The mild-mannered Mr. X is taken aback - in fact insulted. He asks a friend: I am 70 years old, with many professional accomplishments and can offer a lot to a board, why should I continue to serve on a board where right out of the gate its leadership seeks to stifle and gag me? A good question...

For an answer, let's engage in some conjecture about the reason the board Chair made that call. It might be he said to himself:  "Oh-oh, Mr. X is on to something and we don't want him to go down that road." This defensive posture suggests the Chair is a control czar, along with the director. Another possibility, and a kinder one, is that the chair wanted to educate, albeit brusquely, Mr, X about the culture of the organization.. If so, he might want to figure out what role the board  plays in governing the institution aside from a select few.

I discussed Mr. X's quandary with the colleague who brought it to my attention. I offered perhaps a)Mr.  X stay on for at least enough time to quietly take the temperature of the board and its leadership at meetings, and plan his participation accordingly or b) take a "Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead"  approach and continue to raise questions that might cause discomfort. That latter option would have to jibe with his personality. It might result in his being pigeon-holed as a troublemaker.

As for the former idea, my colleague suggested an examination of Mr. X's reason for joining the board. If he is deeply committed to the mission of the organization, then he might be able to ignore the style of its leaders, including  their domineering attitude, and press on. But if he is more interested in management issues,  given the controlling nature of the leadership, he could undergo grinding frustration as he finds his ideas routinely brushed aside.

I don't know how much time Mr. X spent with the leadership before agreeing to serve on the board. His quandary might not have arisen if in thorough pre-decision discussions he could have explored issues and scoped out management styles. Perhaps then he might not have signed on.

I have written before about the importance of thoughtful, mutual vetting in advance between a potential board member and the nonprofit. Such a process can determine if there is a good fit. This story only reinforces that need.

What do you think Mr. X should do? Hang in there, or resign and return for more time with the comforts of retirement? Comment below or write me at: