Is Your Board Turning into a House of Cards?

By Joan Feiereisen, Director of Governance & Board Leadership

If scheming politico Frank Underwood in Netflix’s hit show is the role model of one of your board members, you have a major problem.

Is your board turning into a House of Cards?

Most boards, including those we work with through our PAVE Partner School Program, are composed of competent, dedicated individuals who are genuinely passionate about improving the organizations they serve. Board members may ask tough questions, hold the CEO to high standards and require a high degree of accountability, but they should be doing these things if they are doing their jobs well.

However, there are times when a confluence of weak board leadership coupled with a crisis or challenging situation can produce the rogue board member, someone bent on exerting power and influence who can completely derail a board’s work and thus its effectiveness. This is NOT simply the case of a board member who asks challenging questions or makes others uncomfortable by probing deeper into difficult subjects. Much like Kevin Spacey’s character on House of Cards, who plots to manipulate and scheme his way to the Presidency, this kind of board member has a different agenda, often becoming destructive as he or she seeks to build a power base, undermine the principal, and take over the running of the school.

Look for these signs of trouble:

  • One board member’s name dominates the minutes – and the conversation – at every board meeting
  • A board member begins showing up at school on an almost daily basis, usually unannounced
  • Factions begin to develop on the board, with members aligning for and against the rogue member
  • The Board Chair loses control of board meetings, with the rogue member often taking over
  • Some board members resign in frustration
  • The Executive Committee begins to meet more often – and makes more and more of the decisions outside of the normal meeting times in an effort to avoid conflict, and the problematic board member

If one or more of these indicators is present, don’t wait – take action. The Governance Committee should get involved immediately by meeting with the difficult board member to discuss his or her actions, reviewing the role of the board and reminding him or her that deviating from that role will not be tolerated. If the problematic behavior continues, after a final warning is issued, the board member’s resignation should be called for. If the member resists leaving, don’t hesitate to remove the person from the board. Strong action is necessary in these cases to avoid complete disintegration of a board’s effectiveness.

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