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One executive director I was working with, Sarah (not her real name), suddenly had a very bad day. Without warning, her board of directors held an eight-hour session behind locked doors discussing Sarah… without her. When they adjourned, they imposed a strict structure on Sarah, treating her very poorly.

She didn’t know what had happened! As it turned out, a staff member had made a complaint to the board, and instead of getting Sarah’s side of the story, the board freaked out and took action. Kenneth Dayton once asked, “Why is it that so many directors grow horns when they become trustees?” Sadly, I have seen too many perfectly nice people who are transformed from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde when they enter the boardroom.

There are typically two things that happen in these cases. One is that a bunch of little problems start to snowball, and then the board pounces. Meetings generate high emotions and lead to a sort of “mob mentality.” The fact is that people think differently in a group than they do individually.

Second, often times board members feel ill-equipped and unsure of their abilities. They compensate by trying to control the situation and take action, rather than listening to all points of view.

Luckily, I have some simple solutions to prevent these kinds of situations:

  1. Plan to have a one-on-one meeting with each board member at least once a year. This helps you to have a more personal relationship with each person, and it also gives you a chance to share your side of things.
  2. Try to develop a close relationship with at least a couple of board members, one of them preferably being the board president. This will give you some allies on the board, who will hopefully go to bat for you.
  3. With challenging issues, use what John Maxwell calls the “meeting before the meeting.” Get together with individual members (especially allies) before the meeting and explain your side of the situation. People are generally less aggressive in one-on-one situations.
  4. Always have an open and respectful relationship with every board member. Observe the Golden Rule!
  5. Oftentimes, board members haven’t had training in governance. As an executive director, you can coach your board on leadership techniques and governance styles. Snap judgements made by the board can be a sign of a lack of understanding of how to govern.
  6. For particularly inflammatory situations, I recommend getting a facilitator to lead the group through next steps.

Having a good relationship with your board will prevent a lot of misunderstandings and the growth of unwelcome horns!

Are you ready to boost your board’s performance and relationship with the executive director. Contact our team at Dickerson, Bakker & Associates today to learn more.

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