Managing Low-Performing Board Members

Dr. Marc N. Kramer

While seemingly high-risk, one of the most effective tools for increasing Board performance is self-evaluation.

While neither of these scenarios is universally true (there is deadwood aplenty in the corporate world and many non-profit leaders believe in sink-or-swim employee management), and while these outcomes seem diametric, they share a crucial element: the individuals in question are employees of the organization, paid by the organization to accomplish particular tasks and fulfill particular roles.

But what about low-performing volunteers, especially the donor/volunteers who serve as our Board members? We’ve all served on Boards where there is someone (often, someones) who rarely shows up to meetings, avoids taking on substantive work, and provides financial support far below his or her real capacity – yet there they are on the Board year in and year out. There is certainly a temptation to lob “lazy,” “indifferent,” and “doing this for his ego” at these low performers – especially if others on the Board are working hard to ensure the school’s success. Enticing, yes, but perhaps, a more nuanced approach may be to first examine why some individuals are low- performing Board members and to then develop strategies to improve the performance of the entire Board.

Why, when the vitality of our school is so important, do we have low-performing Board members?

Although there are many reasons why some Board members are low-performers, I would like to highlight eight substantive issues:

There is a lack of clarity as to the purpose of a Board. Some believe that the Board exists to run the school; others think that the Board’s job is to rubber-stamp the work of the head of school. Some believe that Boards exist only to raise money; some believe that the Board is a glamorized PTO. More typically, individuals join Boards believing that the purpose of the Board is to provide leadership, but all they are ultimately charged with attending to matters of management. The low-performer might not truly understand the work of the Board, and as such, does not contribute to it in meaningful ways.

Individuals lack clarity as to why they were asked to sit on a Board. There are any number of reasons why someone is asked to sit on a Board. Is it that they bring a particular skill set or knowledge base? Do they have significant philanthropic potential? Does their presence increase the social value of the Board or school? Are they there to lead? To follow? To lend their good name? The low-performer might fully understand what a Board does and still not know how or why she or he is on it. Committees on Trustees must make evident to those people it selects the rationale for asking of their time, talent and support.

The Board lacks focus. Were it not enough that many Boards must enhance clarity of purpose, many more still fundamentally lack focus. The stated purpose of the Board is to promote and protect the mission of the school, yet Board meetings invariably focus on hot lunch, changing Internet providers, and other minutia far from the real tasks at hand. Meetings ramble on for hours with only limited outcomes. The entire Board debates matters that should be explored and resolved at the committee level, and even then, a question seemingly resolved last month dominates this month’s meeting. The “crisis de jour” defines the work of the Board. The low-performing Board member is an artifact of a low-performing Board. Boards must self-monitor and insist of themselves that they remain focused on the work of leadership.

Expectations are unknown, misunderstood, and/or not managed with equity. Board members, new Board members in particular, often lament that they don’t know what is expected of them. How many meetings must they attend (there are so many of them after all)? What constitutes a “leadership level gift?” What details of a committee meeting should be reported to the entire Board and what should be left out? Why, if a meeting is called for 7:00 p.m., do some people arrive promptly at 7:30 (and why in the world do we wait for them!)? Low-performance can be symptomatic of frustration.

There is no consensus as to the definition of “success.” A job well done is a moving target subject to too many opinions. A Board member single-handedly thwarts a crisis and is chastised by others as a renegade. Another Board member raises $100 for each member of her family only to learn that these funds do not count toward her pledge. A task force working to improve teacher morale is bombarded with questions about improving test scores. Some low-performers are simply aiming too low, or having prior work denigrated by others, elect to sit back and watch others’ efforts get shot down.

Individuals do not feel valued. What separates employees from volunteers is how they are compensated. Staff get paid in dollars (frequently not enough, but that is another story entirely). Volunteers get paid with gratitude, acknowledgment, and self-satisfaction. How many times does someone on the Board have a well-intended idea dismissed by others? Do Boards always honor their biggest donors at the expense of their hardest workers? Are Board members given the vantage point from which to see how the work they do at committee level impacts the big picture of school life? Low-performers might be expressing a need to be validated, acknowledged, and thanked.

There is a mismatch between the individuals and the task assigned to them. How often does one hear stories of the treasurer who cannot read a spreadsheet or a president unwilling or make decisions? What about the lawyer Board member who wants nothing more than to help plan the new ball field because she loves sports and is asked to review contracts? How many times are working people asked to attend mid-day meetings? How many $5,000 donors are uncomfortable calling others for $1,000 gifts? Low-performers may through their actions or inactions be expressing a dislike for or discomfort with the tasks they are asked to do.

There is a mismatch between the values of the individual and the values of the school. As I reflect on the past seven years at RAVSAK, I am increasingly convinced that this is the linchpin challenge for many low-performing Board members. Low-performers often want the school to do or be something that it cannot, will not, or must not. Regardless of any degree of wealth, power, influence, or motivation, for me, this comes down to a simple litmus test: If someone does not value Jewish literacy, does not believe that Jewish sacred text and tradition must inform the Jewish future, does not see the centrality of Israel in the lives of Jews everywhere, and does not see vast potential in Jewish diversity, then they do not belong on a day school Board.

What can be done to improve Board life such that all Board members have the potential for great success?

As with the reasons as to why some Board members are low-performing, the ways through which to improve Board culture to reduce low performance are great in number. Here I offer nine ideas for consideration:

Clarify the work of the Board, the expectations of individuals on the Board, and the “rules” of engagement to all current and potential members. Enforce the “rules” equitably. Boards should have written handbooks and protocols. A Board brit katanah – a collaborative compact that outlines what being on the Board means – can be invaluable. Make sure that the core Jewish values of the school are both crystal clear and not subject to whimsy. There should be no question as to what it means to be on the school Board. Board policies must also apply universally, even to your most generous donors.

Start new volunteer leaders off “low and slow.” A school needs a strong, high-functioning Board. Novice volunteers, regardless of affluence, should enter a school’s volunteer system at the committee – not Board – level and should be monitored for greater leadership potential. Untried volunteers should be given small, manageable tasks at first and gradually assigned more substantive work. If someone is a low-performer, let him let you know this before you hand him the reigns of power! Also, use this time to find out what she likes to do, what she is good at doing, and what she would be excited to learn.

Model expectations. Just like the master teachers every school wants, Board leaders should model the very expectations they hold for others. Meetings should start on time, end on time, and be predicated upon an unwavering commitment to derech eretz (civil discourse; a willingness to agree to disagree). Officers of the Board should give their gifts first before asking others on the Board to do so. Keep confidential matters confidential. Always publicly advocate for the school and its head. Demonstrate a willingness to learn, grow, and work hard on behalf of the school. Be a dugmah (role model) for low-performers so they have a template against which to assess their own performance.

Reward the behaviors you want; ignore those you don’t. In a controversial (if hilarious) New York Times op-ed a few years back, a professional animal trainer described how she “tamed” her sock-dropping, chore-avoidant husband using the same methods she used to teach sea lions tricks: when he did something that she liked (such as taking out the trash) she would toss him a minnow in the form of a warm word of praise; when he left dirty dishes in the sink, she might do them herself or let them fester, but she would never chide him for his misdeed. Whether or not this method actually works on spouses, we know that it is an effective tool for increasing Board productivity. Find ways to acknowledge work that is well done and avoid casting disparity at sub-par accomplishments. Inspire potentially low-performing Board members to aim high. Most folks will opt for carrots without being threatened by sticks.

Institute a buddy system. Boards should develop paradigms in which its highest performing members are paired with less vibrant individuals as mentors, coaches, or co-chairs. Let potentially weak Board members engage with inspirational peers who can help increase their likelihood for success (remember, one reason people agree to be on Boards is to be a part of that social and political inner sanctum).

Invest in your investors. No one is born knowing how to be a good Board member; the complex matrix of skills, tools, knowledge, and dispositions must be learned. In addition to peer mentoring, Board members should undergo formal training in volunteer leadership. All Board members should participate in regular Board retreats and seminars; those with proven track records and burgeoning potential should be encouraged to attend regional and national conferences. To be sure, all of this costs money, but an investment in a facilitator who helps a few underperforming Board members increase their commitment to the school pays for itself multifold.

Evaluate the Board and each Board member. While seemingly high-risk, one of the most effective tools for increasing Board performance is self-evaluation. Volunteers, unlike paid employees who have supervisors and formal evaluations, will have no way of knowing how they are doing if no one tells them. In some schools, the Executive Committee plays a “supervisory” role with the rest of the Board; in other cases, Boards undertake regular self-studies as a means of assessing individual and collective success and shortcomings. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that no low-performer can say “I didn’t know I wasn’t pulling my weight around here.”

Create safe exit strategies for low-performing Board members. Although it may be an honor to be asked to sit on a Board, it need not be a disgrace to leave one. Low-performing Board members more often than not are aware of their performance level, are on some level dissatisfied, and may want to get off the Board, yet lack a means of doing so without looking like a quitter or a failure. Boards should consider crafting organic step-back/step-off points in between elections for individuals who need to leave the Board. One strategy might be to think like professional baseball: just as sometimes major league players need to go back to the minor leagues to gain or regain requisite skills, so, too, might a low-performing Board member step off the Board but remain on a standing committee. By allowing individuals the option to self-regulate their own commitment, the Board simultaneously gives over the opportunity for future learning and the hope for increased performance at a later date.

Be willing to ask someone to leave the Board. Individual Board members who, despite all efforts, remain low-performers, should be asked to leave the Board. Studies have repeatedly shown that when the lowest rated members of a team are removed and replaced by highly motivated neophytes, the entire team increases its performance level. This may be understood as one part “The Weakest Link” and two parts “Survivor.” High-performing Board members are disencumbered of shouldering low-performing peers. At the same time, they are infused with a renewed sense of mission: as the ones remaining on the Board, we must work harder and help support the new Board members succeed as well. Of course, the process of asking someone to leave the Board must be informed by Jewish values – a person, regardless of their failures as a Board member, must be allowed to exit with dignity and reputation in tact. ♦

Dr. Marc N. Kramer is Executive Director of RAVSAK. Dr. Kramer can be reached at [email protected]
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HaYidion Board Leadership Winter 2007
Board Leadership
Winter 2007