Thorny Issues: Board Members with Pet Priorities

By Teresa Valerio Parrot    //    Volume 21,  Number 5   //    September/October 2013

A new board member has a pet program that he insists be included in all discussions, whether an appropriate fit or not. The fixation on this topic of personal interest is shifting the board’s focus away from its primary tasks and aggravating the rest of the board. The member is also gaining a reputation for micromanaging the program’s efforts. What should be done?

New board members often arrive with relationships across campus and an affinity for specific programs or units. It would be naïve to ignore their pasts, but we have responsibilities to broaden their perspectives of the institution and their potential impact across all programs and units. We can best do this as they undertake their board roles by offering training that both acknowledges their personal interests and provides context for the bigger picture. Consider the following:

  • Remind the board member of the mission of the institution and the strategic plan. If the program’s focus fits within these two areas, then articulate its place among the greater goals. If it doesn’t, explain that the institution needs to focus on achieving the strategic plan and outline the process for having the pet issue considered for inclusion in the next strategic-planning process.
  • Reiterate that the role of board members is to provide leadership direction, not tactical implementation advice. Nobody likes micromanagers or meddlers—help the member avoid being labeled as either.
  • Create a biweekly e-mail or post regular updates to an Intranet site for the board that details all requests for information, tickets, or special attention (including for pet projects) that are received by the office of the president or board officer and the resulting responses. Sharing this data with the entire board will show that the institution appreciates the dedication and involvement of all board members and may also serve to identify the overindulgence of some. From there, it is up to the board chair and fellow board members to address wayward behavior directly with the offender.

As a last resort, the board chair may need to suggest that an advisory board position is a better fit for this member’s passions than membership on an institution-wide board. I recently consulted with a board chair who advised a fellow board member accordingly. The departing board member found a position as a member of an advisory council, advising a dean, and the board regained its ability to lead the university and support the president.

Some pet issues, however, deserve our attention. Take time to understand the perspective of your board’s outlier before dismissing his or her queries as efforts to distract the board from its true responsibilities.

I worked for a board member who was often antagonized for asking question after question and lengthening public board meetings. She was known for issuing a litany of data requests and demands for reviews of procedures that some board members thought were best asked behind closed doors.

Specifically, she was insistent that questions related to Title IX compliance needed to be asked openly and that, while implementation of the law was the responsibility of the institution, the board was accountable for oversight of its compliance. Most board members refused to talk to her about her concerns or the reasons for her persistent inquiry. In retrospect, she was a visionary on a subject that years later arose as a serious issue for many institutions. A summary of the questions she posed could today serve as a checklist of compliance for all institutions.

When discussing pet issues with board members, remind yourself that their good intentions and passion for your institution brought them to you. Harness that passion, and the questioning, and use them to bolster strong governance practices and accountable leadership that address the needs of the institution.

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