Removing Underperforming Board Members

board-meetingAn organization that is highly effective long-term has a smart and healthy board. This requires that appropriate people are sitting on the board. One bad apple can spoil the whole bushel. If you are serving your organization well, you won’t let one bad board member cripple your progress.

Too many organizations rely on term limits to oust an under-contributor. At a recent hospital governance conference, Jamie Orlikoff mentioned that he had heard some board members say of a peer, “we only have to put up with him for another six years”. Ouch! How painful for the board members, the CEO, and the organization! There are other avenues.

Board member evaluations are a major part of the solution. When organizations have written board member expectations or job descriptions it is possible to provide feedback to each board member on what she is doing well or where he could improve. The board chair or board governance committee is often assigned the task of ensuring board member evaluations happen. The intent is that board members will be appreciated and encouraged in their areas of contribution and will receive training and coaching in the areas of concern so that they can become great contributors. However, if an underperforming board member has no interest in or no potential for performing well in the board role, it is time to encourage – and eventually insist – that she not continue as a board member. As Jim Brown, one of my Strive! colleagues says, “terming out is copping out”. Leaders need to take tough actions.

Board Term Limits

541084I recently heard David Barton, an expert on cooperatives from Kansas State University, speak on board term limits. Since I see the downside as well as some benefits of organizations having term limits for their board members, I was particularly interested in his comments. David Barton shared that recent research on governance practices among cooperatives in Kansas has shown a move away from term limits. Many organizations have found that the benefits of term limits are not worth the disadvantages.

Almost everybody is in favor of clear terms. When someone becomes a board member it is important that the end of this board appointment is understood – the individual will be a board member until a certain date, say March 31, 2012. If those who select board members wish, the individual can be given another term that might expire on March 31, 2015. There are actually some organizations that have asked people to join their boards, and serving became an ongoing responsibility until the person pleaded years later to be excused from this apparent unending obligation. Let’s be clear and state the date on which the current commitment ends. Three year terms are common. I have also seen one, two, and four year terms.