Boards behaving badly: Are you part of the problem?

Part of what makes a diverse trustee board so great is the mix of personalities, skillsets, and experience. When a trustee board consists of the optimal mix of skills and expertise, as well as different backgrounds, temperaments and passions, the results will be improved decision making and ultimately better delivery of the charity’s strategy.

But just because a board contains a mix of people, doesn’t necessarily mean they are right for the job. In fact, dysfunctional trustee boards are extremely common; and, while there are hundreds of thousands of fantastic trustees, unfortunately, every trustee has an element of behaving badly.

Here, Penny Wilson, CEO of trustee recruitment charity, Getting on Board, highlights a typical trustee board, showcasing some of the characteristics of badly-behaved trustees:

‘Winging it Wilma’
• Doesn’t read the papers or prepare for meetings
• Ends up having to be caught up and wastes time
• Is often distracted/checking her phone/late
• Does nothing between meetings
• Never does her actions
• Never develops herself/learns anything

‘Nicey Nicey Nick’
• Will never disagree with anyone
• Sees disagreeing as conflict
• Nick is Treasurer – and it annoys him that the others just nod the budget through, but he doesn’t know how to address that
• Wants to get through the agenda and on to the alcohol as quickly as possible

‘Part of The Wallpaper Pete’
• Is the chair
• Has been on the board for 25 years
• Is great at the corporate memory
• But says “we tried that before and it didn’t work” too much
• He NEVER changes his mind
• Hogs the floor, doesn’t encourage people to speak
• Does a lot of business outside of the room

‘Know-it-all Nigel’
• Is an expert in EVERYTHING
• Talks too much
• Has his hobby horses – which he mentions every time
• Effect on others: will move on just to shut him up
• Nigel might actually know some stuff, but it’s impossible to pick out what’s real and what’s bluff

‘Quiet Quentin’
• Joined the board recently
• Is wondering what the hell is going on
• Has no idea what’s expected of him
• Didn’t have an induction
• No one seems interested in what he has to say, other than on diversity issues (he’s an IT manager) and issues affecting minority communities he doesn’t belong to
• Actually does know more than Nigel on some topics but no one asks him to speak
• Thinking about leaving

‘Detail Doreen’
• Prides herself on knowing what’s in the detail
• Is too involved
• Delights in pointing out typos

‘What’s His Name? Walter’
• We don’t know anything about him or what he looks like because he never comes to meetings. He joined in 2013, but no one dares ask him to leave

Why do trustees behave badly?

So why do these characters exist? And why do boards behave badly? Trustees are volunteers; they give up their free time to lead the direction of a charity. As a result of this, it can often generate inflated egos; with a group of people who believe they have the right to be there, but don’t necessarily add value to the board and don’t know any better.
It’s easy for many boards to forget about good governance too. Many trustees won’t have read up on the latest guidance relating to good governance for some time and have likely forgot about what good chairing really looks like.

Over time, as boards fail to undergo a re-fresh, it’s easy for trustees to lose sight of the cause, too. Much like ‘Pete’, staying on a board for too long can result in a lack of diversity of thought and a tendency to have a narrow-minded outlook on the future of the charity.

What to do if you recognise these bad behaviours in yourself

After reading this, you may recognise yourself as a Wilma, Nigel or Quentin. Or you may know somebody just like Doreen, Walter or Nick. If you recognise any of these behaviours in your own approach to trusteeship – have a word with yourself. Think about how you might be able to act differently and try it out at your next board meeting. If your board looks and sounds too much like the typical board listed here; it’s time for a re-fresh. If you’ve been on the board for decades and you recognise a lot of these behaviours in yourself; perhaps it might be time to move on. Alternatively, think about the composition of your board, the inclusion of new trustees and look at ways of bringing new voices, skills, and experience to the table.

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