Thoughts on Joining a Stale Board of Directors

A friend of mine recently emailed me asking for advice: she’s joined the Board of Directors of a non-tech organization that’s well known for being staid and more interested in maintaining the status quo than leaping boldly (or even timidly) into the future.
We went back and forth with ideas about how she could have impact, and at the end, she kindly agreed to let me republish our interchange. My hope is that you, dear reader, can go through what we discussed and add some additional ideas of your own about how she could proceed.
She asks:
I’m on the Board of Directors of “Organization X” and the big reason I was brought on is because the association isn’t focused on green — and have had comments made to them about that short coming. I don’t know the best way to approach them with the reminder they need to be greener and thought you might have suggestions for me.
Fear of ChangeI frequently make suggestions that involve greening their image but am brushed away. I volunteer to do “green things”, with little results (some but not enough for my taste). I even volunteered to be on the marketing committee, telling the lead that I had some ideas that would promote the group and show we are getting greener. But after numerous reminders of my interest to the leader I don’t feel I can say anything more.
But we have a Board meeting coming up in a week or so and I would like to make a bigger impact than I have. As the new kid on the block how can I get my message through in a way that will be palatable and heard?
My response to her:
Sounds like a tough situation. I fear that you might be facing an almost insurmountable challenge. Further, my experience is that it’s always better to *do* than to talk or suggest, so perhaps you should be putting more of your effort into just demonstrating what you’ve been talking about? Further, it might well be possible that the group is too stuck in its ways and that there is no way to change them. Perhaps in that case you might find it more beneficial to propose a “green committee” that you head up or even just find a different outlet for your enthusiasm?
For groups comprised of individuals who have been part of the status quo for any length of time, anyone new, anyone with different ideas, anyone who suggests that “same as it ever was” isn’t working, is a huge and frightening threat and the normal reaction is to reject, deny or just ignore them.
It’s not about what you can *say* to make your message heard, after all, it’s about having them *see* what you’re doing and *see* results that are important and valuable to the organizational members. Ask yourself “how can I do this without stepping on toes or even implying that the current board members aren’t doing a brilliant job?”
And finally…
This is a common challenge for innovators who join existing organizational management or strategic teams: how do you encourage change without threatening the people who are already part of the organization?

5 comments on “Thoughts on Joining a Stale Board of Directors

  1. Dave,
    I worked for several large companies in the television broadcast, motion picture and entertainment industries.
    It was always my intention in a new role, to seek out one well respected advocate within the group and invite them to an off-site luncheon.
    Sharing your ideas with someone who has experience with the board in pitching a new paradigm makes the long term goals obtainable.
    I once shared and elevator with the President of our corporation in the hallway, who commented on a handwritten letter I had drafted to him and hand delivered to his office some weeks earlier.
    He spent ten minutes discussing how we might begin the gradual change in operations I proposed.
    Sometimes, waiting a bit to find this trusted insider who has the ears of the stakeholders is the best recipe for change.
    I enjoyed your recent sessions at BlogWorld Expo 2008 and Affiliate Summit 2009.
    My challenges now involve learning and participating in all the ways that I can regarding Social Media, and eventually creating compelling text ads that convince a ‘searcher’ to buy.
    Respectfully,
    Nicholas Chase
    http://www.twitter.com/nachase

  2. I like Nicholas’ suggestion about trying to get the ear of an influencer in the group.
    I am still very new to my professional career, and have felt in past jobs that there is no good way to be heard; that you have to simply have to keep your head down and wait until you are afforded influence, or find an employer with a culture in place conducive to employee suggestions. Coming from an academic setting in which lively debate is a day-in-day-out occurrence, it leaves many woefully unprepared to patiently wait to assert opinions at work. Education institutions should really think about how to prepare students for this hurdle in working life.
    At 24, I have never been asked to serve on a board, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. However, I have done extensive study on corporate ethics and governance, and it appears to me that this is a classic instance of a business wanting to “ride the green wave,” and hope to deflect negative attention from scrutinous stakeholder groups. If this person truly considers herself a progressive in business environmentalism, perhaps the boldest statement that could be made is to openly renounce the organization as an environmental fraud, and walk away.
    Josh Clauss
    @joshclauss

  3. Dave,
    I am no authority on this subject, so consider this just one guy’s guess at what might possibly work. And not obviously knowing the entire situation, I’ll guess as best I can.
    The first thing that came to mind is, if “the big reason I was brought on is because the association isn’t focused on green”, perhaps whoever brought her on needs to remind the board of that fact.
    If I were in her situation, I would try to find out what would motivate the board to “want” to become more green. Especially since she mentioned that they “have had comments made to them about that short coming.”
    Since it doesn’t appear that they’re part of the ‘We want to be green just to help the environment and and save energy’ crowd, I would try to hit them where they might appreciate the positive impact of a greener association.
    Better public/member/community/industry image?
    Free PR? Green is hot right now and I’m pretty sure there’s someone out there willing to report on any initiatives they might put in place.
    Additional revenue, members, donors etc. (again, not knowing what field she’s in this could be different)
    Energy cost savings to the organization?
    I would offer them facts and case studies to back up my arguments, which should be found fairly easily online.
    If she can find ‘What’s in it for them’, and show them how that can be achieved, perhaps they will open up to her ideas.
    Best of luck to her at the upcoming meeting,
    Steve

  4. It sounds like although the Board is acknowledging the need for green activities, it may also be afraid of change — it might cost too much money, shift the company’s brand too far, or otherwise make the board members uncomfortable. I would suggest addressing the root of this discomfort first with a trusted colleague who knows the board well, as suggested. Then, I’d build a strategy that mitigates this fear and answers the board’s question: What’s in it for me? If you can align specific activities and their costs to anticipated returns — financial, brand, community relations or other, then you will have done a a superb job, whether they accept your proposal or not.

  5. It all depends on how much time she has. If she has quite a bit of time (years), is passionate about the subject, and has patience she could accept the position. Challenging groupthink is tough, most people fiercely resist change and will do nearly anything to stop it. She is in for a fight – but passion and persistence always wins in the end, it is just a matter of which side has more of each quality. I personally would not want to take this on.
    My preferred approach would be to start something new such as the green committee you had suggested. However it is important that her committee retain independence as to not be influenced by the board. This sounds great in theory but in practice is a near impossibility.
    My personal advice would be to move on to “greener” pastures. Perhaps find a group of individuals as passionate about the subject as she is, ban together and operate independently. If she makes drastic positive impact and is doing something interesting – people will notice and follow.

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