Understanding the Human Side of Board Members

Life is complicated.  And we probably don’t acknowledge enough that these complicated lives do intrude into the affairs of our organizations including our boards of directors.

I am reading the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Elizabeth Strout’s novel in stories, Olive Kitteridge.  This is a beautifully written testament to just how complicated lives are even in a small New England town. Just below the superficial surface of this small town, people are ill or dying, families are dysfunctional, people are betraying a loved one and sometimes they make heartwarming or heartbreaking connections in surprising ways.

While I don’t think anyone has written the Olive Kitteridge of the association world, all this messy human life is right there below the surface in your organization as well. I’ve seen boards tiptoe for an entire term around a board chair’s fragile emotional state after the death of a spouse. I know leaders who have given up demanding jobs, because they cannot bear to miss another bedtime with their children. And I’m sure I have failed to recognize more than once that the leader who seems to be underperforming is actually overwhelmed instead of incompetent or negligent.

Because board members typically only see one another in the context of a board meeting, it’s easy to miss these human struggles. As board members we only show up with one and often the least complicated of our identities.

Boards still need to govern and organizations still need to fulfill their missions, so what can we do to acknowledge and accommodate these other real challenges in our lives?

When I joined a governance board for a community organizing nonprofit, the lead organizer told us we had to get to know one another before we got into tough situations. So quite often we take 10 minutes to do one-on-one conversations at our meetings, and we are encouraged to meet with one another for longer conversations. But it’s not just making time for personal conversations that helps. We are also guided and coached to turn these conversations into a focused sharing of each other’s lives and motivations.  Issues will come and go, but we know it will be the relationships that sustain our organization.

Board retreats are another opportunity to get acquainted and get below the surface if they are not over-programmed with the business of the organization.  Mentoring and buddy systems also help make sure at least someone knows every board member a little better than name, title and affiliation.

Once we better understand what is really going on with one another, we can take turns stepping up or back as needed. And if a person’s emotional condition compromises performance too long, we should find it easier to have caring and candid conversations about stepping down for the good of the organization.