Picture this: a board of trustees sitting around a table. The meeting starts with some good-natured catching up on people’s shared connections.
Since they last met, someone has met a minor royal. Someone else has visited their second home. A third’s son, a diplomat, has got engaged.
Michael, the chair, starts the meeting.
The chief executive gives an update. Robert asks her about a new sign for the door. He has asked her this every meeting for the past five meetings. He tells the story about how he once persuaded the local council to change their signage. Again.
Two trustees come in late, and two aren’t there at all.
Now the finances. The organisation turns over £1m a year. Jack is the treasurer. He speaks. Everyone else is silent. Two people check their phone. Someone queries the cost of a new desk. They move on.
The board talks about the organisation’s profile. They recently employed a part-time comms person, Sarah, who has been working wonders.
Sarah has been invited to attend this section of the meeting. None of the board members has worked in marketing and comms themselves.
Sarah gives an update. Nobody thanks her. Brenda suggests that the organisation needs to do more on Instagram. Sarah explains that by her analysis, Instagram isn’t the right platform to focus on, given that they have limited resources.
Brenda talks more about Instagram.
People check their phones. Sarah leaves thinking that they now need to set up an Instagram account (although she’s not sure, because there was no clear directive), which she’s pretty sure won’t have great traction.
The board moves on to the future of one of the services. None of the trustees has lived experience of the challenges the organisation’s service users are dealing with.
But Trevor’s sister-in-law’s friend has had similar challenges, so Trevor talks at length about that.
He is confident. No one suggests that they might look at other sources of information or data. They decide to make a pretty significant change to the service.
Then, on to the premises. It’s post-Covid-19 and many more staff are working from home. They could downsize and save some money.
Sam, who joined the board last meeting, is a property professional.
Robert kicks them off with his opinion. It’s lengthy and they’ve heard it all before. Brenda disagrees, but is soon silenced by Robert, who repeats his opinions.
No one else speaks. Nobody asks what Sam thinks, and Sam doesn’t feel able to speak out.
Someone leaves the room to take a call.
The last item.
Michael, the chair, has been pretty quiet so far. But he is now ready for his tea. The last item is a juicy one.
Another organisation wants to talk about a merger. Michael says: “Has anyone got any thoughts on this?”
He doesn’t draw breath before he says: “Yes, I think we all know what we think about this. So that brings us to a close for the evening. Thank you everyone.”
This leaves no room for any comment.
The trustees leave thinking the meeting has been useful. A job well done. They feel pleased that they got their point heard.
Thank goodness I mentioned the sign, thinks Robert. I’m totally intimidated by this lot, thinks Sam. I must get myself on Instagram, thinks Brenda. I need a gin, thinks the chief executive.
I have exaggerated, of course. Not all boards are like this. Many are useful, functional groups of amazingly committed individuals, driving their charities to undertake life-changing and life-enhancing work.
But I’ve seen repeated bad behaviour on boards, and it goes like this:
A lack of discussion, debate or disagreement
Overwhelming voices, and a desire to have your voice heard above all else
Talking more than listening
Not being open to new perspectives or changing your mind
Not encouraging contributions from quieter members of the board, even on topics where they evidently have a lot to offer
A crippling focus on operational detail
Poor chairing, including closed questions, which allow for no debate
Not recognising that the board doesn’t have the right information, and therefore needs to come back to a decision rather than make it on the spot
An unclear, or plain dysfunctional, relationship with staff
Not being open to learning and developing as individuals or as a board.
Most boards are not as bad as the one I have described, but most have at least some aspects of this bad behaviour.
As individual trustees, we need to hold ourselves to high standards, and have an honest conversation with ourselves about whether we are slipping into bad behaviour.
Part of the problem stems from our attitudes to boards.
In my made-up board, they have been senior in their day jobs. They are the great and the good. They are used to being listened to.
They have been invited to join the board and the implication is that they are being asked for what (and who) they know. This makes them feel proud.
It also makes them less inclined to think that they have anything to learn. They haven’t been properly inducted, so any new trustees either leave, don’t attend, or become quickly indoctrinated into this way of doing things.
So, let’s keep our inner Robert and Brenda at bay and strive to do things better.
Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment