|Tales from the Boardroom case studies are fictional examples created by the editor to illustrate common governance challenges.|
Karen is in her second year on the Any City Bar Association Board of Directors. She's been a valuable addition to the board, particularly with her close relationships with several local judges. When budget cuts threaten the court's ability to fund the Domestic Relations Assistance Desk, Karen tells her friend the local Chief Administrative Judge that she's sure the bar will contribute at least $10,000 to the effort, and might be able to provide some volunteers, as well. Providing access to legal services has always been a major priority of the bar, and Karen knows an opportunity like this is a no-brainer.
When Karen brings the issue to the attention of the bar's president and executive director, she's surprised by their quiet and unenthusiastic response. In the course of the next half-hour, she discovers that the bar had previously contributed to the project, but the administration of the project had been a disaster. The bar's proposals for change were rejected, so it had no choice but to pull out of the project.
Karen realizes that she's made a commitment (albeit informal) to the Chief Judge that she can't keep. When Karen tells the Chief Judge what's happened, the Chief is frustrated and annoyed. While their friendship remains largely unaffected, subsequent interactions between the Chief and the bar president are chilly.
What can we take away from this situation?
As a board member, you're an ambassador and you have a responsibility to be on the lookout for just these kinds of opportunities and potential partnerships. Karen did an excellent job in this regard, but she took it a step too far. We must be extraordinarily careful not to make commitments - explicitly or implicitly - on behalf of the bar. As in this case, we may not always have the full story.
It's ok to ask for information. If there are other parties involved, suggest that they talk with the executive director or president. Or, if it seems appropriate, suggest that you'll raise the issue with the board. Expressing a willingness to explore a partnership or to lend assistance is appropriate so long as the other party knows that it's the board - not individual board members - that makes the final decision.
This Quarter's Best Board Practice
To ensure your board is performing optimally and that the board experience is a positive one, periodically conduct a board self-evaluation with criteria that your board decides. Have board members rate themselves and the board, and then follow up with a full-group discussion. Acknowledge areas of strength, and discuss how the board will address areas that need improvement.
Write me at email@example.com with your bar’s good practices and suggestions. We’ll share them in the next issue.