Expert view: What to do when a trustee doesn't fit

Be honest and work with board members who do too little or too much for your organisation.

The problem of underperforming trustees can prove tricky - especially when the individuals are not only providing their services for free, but also representing the company that just happens to be your most significant donor.

I know of one trustee who never attended any meetings, but the chair was reluctant to take action because the organisation was dependent on donations from the trustee's employer. The decision was made to sit it out until the individual's term of office expired. It did, however, act as a catalyst for change, forcing a proper evaluation process to take place when his successor was selected. The company was asked to put forward two candidates for interview using a new process.

Too little, too much

Given that most charitable organisations are already tight ships, with little capacity to carry passengers, trustees who consistently fail to attend meetings, turn up unprepared or obviously lose interest midway through a term of office, can present a big problem. Trustees who try too hard and attempt to do the work of full-time, paid staff can be just as disruptive.

Even more challenging is the trustee who comes with impressive skills that no longer meet the particular needs of the organisation. Typically, this person won't be able to recognise the fact for themselves. The board can find itself stuck with the wrong person for the job, and other trustees end up trying to avoid the person in question.

To tackle these issues, the chair needs to be honest and say: "We have a problem. We need your help to solve it." It is even more difficult, of course, if the chair is the source of the difficulties - in which case the chief executive should liaise with the next most senior trustee before one of them speaks to the chair. All conversations in these circumstances should be well documented.

Where possible, the chair should work with the person in question to help her or him to meet the organisation's needs, perhaps by offering training. It's always preferable to try first to resolve the issue while keeping the person on the board. But if people prefer to go, let them bow out gracefully. They often know there is a problem, but it takes such a conversation to help them face up to it.

Far more complicated is the unconsciously incompetent trustee, who is blissfully unaware there is any issue. But even these people usually recognise there is a problem when it is brought to their attention. Only as a last resort should boards elect to remove the trustee - and this is very unusual. Whatever happens, use the experience to take stock - perhaps with a formal, independent board evaluation.

 - Betty Thayer is chief executive of Exec-appointments.com and Non-execs.com

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