How to Know When it’s Time to Quit a Board
The irony that this post is on a website that encourages new and aspiring directors to ‘Get on Board’ has not eluded me.
Regardless, knowing when it’s time to step off a board is just as important as knowing when it’s time to step on to a board. The beauty of boards is that you are not tied to them in a way that you generally are with a professional career. This is worth keeping in mind when circumstances change and a resignation may be called for.
I’m by no way encouraging you to jump on and off boards as often as you change your socks. However, there will be times when the best outcome for you, the board, and the organisation is that you exit gracefully.
Here are a handful of reasons why you may need to consider stepping off a board:
I’m like a broken record when it comes to telling fledgling board members that one of the most important considerations you need to make before getting on a board is that you have the time to commit to board meetings, meeting preparation, committees, learning, and all the rest.
However, during your board tenure, your circumstances may change and you no longer have the ability to commit the time necessary to act as an effective board member. That’s OK. It’s no doubt disappointing – to you and the board – but, life happens.
Another factor that can impact the time commitment required is if the organisation is going through a significant event that calls for the board members to do more work (e.g. meet more regularly, meet with third-parties, work more hands-on in the business, etc.). For you this additional workload may not be possible. Again, disappointing.
Regardless of what’s impacting the time commitment required, the best thing you can do before resigning is talk to your Chair. They may suggest moving to a committee-only role, or a board consultation role, so that you can still be involved without the additional workload. They will also tell you that it is completely OK for you to resign if you need to (no doubt with a legitimate ‘it will be sad to see you go’ comment).
You’ve lost faith and/or trust
Unfortunately many boards contain well intentioned but ill-prepared directors who try hard, but just don’t seem to understand business, strategy, finances, or governance. I’m grateful for their time and energy, but their lack of understanding – and lack of wanting to understand – scares the pants off me. As a board you’re a team. And team decisions mean that everyone on that team is responsible (this is why trust is so vital in the boardroom).
If things start to happen that you begin to lose faith (i.e. decisions are being made that you innately don’t agree with, directors are behaving unethically, their actions are questionable, whatever it is) consider stepping off the board. The last thing you want to do is put yourself, and your personal assets, at risk because of other peoples’ decisions, actions, or behaviours (or lack thereof).
Firstly try everything you can to rectify the situation and influence a change in behaviour, but don’t bang your head against the wall. Don’t stick around to fight a losing battle. Particularly if you’re not getting paid to do so.
You see storm clouds on the horizon
This could be seen as an eventuality if point two above is let go without recourse. Bad decisions lead to bad outcomes. The worst case is insolvency. However, if you can see that board decisions are leading to negative outcomes in the organisation, it’s something that you can’t ignore.
Again, do what you can to try to influence a more positive outcome before you jump ship. But if you see that iceberg getting closer, get to the nearest life raft quickly (and it’s likely not the board table – Jack showed us that it’s not going to save you).
Your seat is better filled by someone else
There comes a time in all organisations where, as a director, you are no longer adding any value. You’ve become a seat warmer. You may or may not be aware that you have made it to this point.
Here are a few things come to mind that you should be aware of: your expertise is no longer needed; you get annoyed when it comes to meeting day and make excuses not to go (or you just don’t show up at all); you don’t feel excited by anything to do with the organisation; everyone and everything to do with the board is p***ing you off; you don’t adequately prepare for meetings; every comment you make is negative; you’ve stopped making comments on anything during meetings; you don’t respond to board emails; I think I’ve made my point.
Have a healthy level of self-awareness to know when you become like this and make the brave, selfless move of freeing up your board seat to a new, invigorated person who can add great value to the board and organisation. You’ll get bonus points if you have the wherewithal to make this move before your maximum tenure has been reached, or you’re in between terms. Any time is a good time to step off the board if you have become cynical, disengaged, and a drag to work with.
As I mentioned, I’m not encouraging you to jump on and off boards willy-nilly (that will put a stop to your board career post-haste). However, there are times when the best outcome for you, the board, and the organisation is that you exit gracefully. Be aware of the cues that I have outlined above. And always keep in mind the personal risks you are exposed to as a director. No board is worth losing everything.