Board members behaving badly

I am a huge documentary fan, and one of my favorites is Ancients Behaving Badly on the History Channel. This series discusses the worst of the ancients: Caligula, Nero, Attila the Hun, Caesar, Alexander the Great, Nero, Hannibal, and Genghis Khan. Obviously I’m making this comparison to board members for shock value, but some of the examples below of poor board behavior is worthy of sharing in hopes of educating and encouraging change (especially if that change is the removal of the worst offenders).

Pitchforks and torches

I don’t know what it is, but there’s been a string of abuses that I’ve either heard about or witnessed. For me, it’s disheartening that so many CEOs and executive management teams have to work around or deal with this bad behavior. In one case, the angst regarding some board members was so strong it reminded me of the serfs with pitchforks rising up in old black and white monster movies.

Sins of Omission

Bad behavior ranges from unintended to intentional. Regardless, both are harmful to personal interaction, culture, and ultimately to the credit union’s performance and future.

First, let’s start with Sins of Omission. For those of you who didn’t spend as much time in Sunday school as I did, Sins of Omission are those we committed when we knew we should’ve done something good, but refused. Here are a couple of examples of board members behaving badly:

  • Lack of commitment – These boards and board members do the bare minimum. They attend meetings but contribute very little. They frequently have attendance issues. When they do attend, they lack preparation, don’t read their board packet or other valuable information carefully prepared by staff to educate the board. They don’t really understand the credit union’s business model, they don’t promote their credit union, and they don’t use any of their credit unions products or services. Their lack of commitment retards growth, morale, and the constant improvement needed to remain relevant in the future. They hold valuable seats that should be held by others who will contribute considerably more.
  • Turning a blind eye – These boards and board members often turn a blind eye to avoid conflict, failing to hold others accountable. This includes other board members and management.
  • Little or no diversity – This isn’t always intentional, but it occurs when friends refer friends, and there is very little turn over on the board. The average board member is a 61-year-old white male. Communities, field of memberships and staff have changed, and our boards should reflect these stakeholders.

Sins of Commission

Sin of Commission is a sin we take action to commit, whether in thought, word, or deed. A Sin of Commission can be intentional or unintentional. Here are a few of the worst committed by board members:

  • Passive/aggressive behavior – Quiet, but intentional resistance to strategies, initiatives, change, and support. This frequently leads to a “board meeting after the board meeting,” usually in the parking lot after a more formal meeting. Decisions made at these meetings undercut trust, kill morale, and stop progress.
  • Theft – It’s a bold accusation, but what else do you call misuse or abuse of expense budgets. Unfortunately, I have seen this abuse range from board members who order $100 shots at the bar during conventions to educational junkets that are so far out of budget or are demanded at a time when the credit union can least afford it. One can try to justify it, but I consider it theft and I think most CEOs do too. But why does it still occur? Not for profit, not for charity, but for service?
  • Sexism and racism – It’s sad, but it still exists in the credit union movement. This immoral behavior is sad and discouraging. Great CEOs are held back, talked down to, and mistreated because of their gender, and vibrant, diverse, and underserved communities aren’t served because of the color of their skin, lifestyle, or economic condition. The real power of our credit union movement will not be realized until all people are treated equally and fairly.
  • Bullying – These credit unions have a bully on their board who dominates everything. Nothing happens unless they agree. They are condescending and disrespectful to others, which leads to less input, inferior decisions, poor performance, and unhappy people.

Making things right – here are a few things to consider:

  • Get the right people on the board, those with the ethics, commitment, connections, diversity, skill-sets, and attributes that strongly support the credit union’s vision and mission.
  • Have clear expectations for board engagement, behavior, and compliance, and hold them accountable.
  • Educate the board – there are many quality board-education programs. I’m frequently asked to provide education on board roles, responsibilities, and best practices as part of my credit union strategic planning sessions. Sometimes it easier to have facilitators pull the bandage off or expose the white elephant in the room.
  • Nominate a board chair who sets an example of best behavior and who will inspire others to act accordingly.
  • Keep score and assess performance. There are many quality individual and group assessment programs specifically designed for credit union board members.
  • Create and maintain a good working relationship with the CEO. This is key to making sure the CEO can freely share their thoughts and provide fair feedback on issues that arise.
  • Have zero tolerance for unethical and unprofessional behavior.
  • Consider board term limits. Don’t get me wrong, I know scores of outstanding board members who have been on their boards for decades, and these good people are best practices for volunteer engagement. However, we do have far too many board members whose time has passed and need to move on. One easy way to facilitate this is clear board term limits in the bylaws.

Why it matters

If ever there was a time for quality, high-performing boards “behaving well,” it’s now. Credit unions must be governed by strong boards if they are to survive.

If you are reading this and feeling frustrated with the conditions in your shop. I encourage you to have the courage to lead the change that is needed. Your credit union and our credit union movement are depending on you.

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