Managing a Friendship when you sit on the same Board
A friend of mine (lets call her Jane) recently told me about a situation she is experiencing on one of her boards. Her fellow board member and friend of hers (who we will call Sarah) has recently become the Chair.
Whilst Jane thinks Sarah is the best person for this role, there have been some instances where Jane has experienced some negative behaviour from other board members, which Sarah does not do anything about. Jane is confused and bothered by the reaction – or lack thereof – from Sarah. Jane is not sure how to manage this situation without damaging her friendship with Sarah.
It got me thinking that Jane is likely not alone in her predicament. There are likely many others who would be stuck between the role of a friend and the role of a fellow board member; particularly when the majority of board roles are made available to friends and colleagues of current board members.
Sharing a board with a friend is generally smooth sailing if you are both ‘regular’ directors. It’s when your friend becomes the Chair that things could get challenging between you both.
Borrowing from personal experience and expert commentary, below are some tools and techniques that you can use to manage the personal and professional relationship with your friend-come-Chair.
Your friend now has the tough job of leading a group of her peers – and some more challenging than others. She has to ensure that all directors are being treated equally and have the same level of accountability and responsibility. What this means is that your relationship will change, and you need to acknowledge that with each other.
Sit down and talk it through. Set some boundaries around talking about board-related issues. Work out how you will both share information that is pertinent to both your roles. Set some rules around gossiping – the Chair will need stop doing this with you and anyone else. You may need to find someone else to vent to. Respect the boundaries that you set with each other.
Don’t expect special treatment now that your friend is in the hot seat. Continue to contribute and work to the best of your ability in your role as a director and as a member of the board.
As much as you can, take the emotion out of the ‘job’ part of the relationship with your friend. Remain objective and be prepared to “suck it up” if your friend has to change their behaviour and attitude toward you in their new role.
However, if they change beyond a level that seems reasonable, you may want to have a private conversation with them. Unlike your fellow board members, you are in the unique position to give direct feedback in a way that your friend will be receptive to.
If your friend happens to confide in you about a board matter, do not use this information against them. Be a good friend and offer support and guidance where appropriate. If you feel awkward or that the issue is beyond your abilities, suggest some places or people that she may be able to work with to get help in their board role.
Another important thing to do is to maintain an impression to the rest of the board that you and your friend have – and can maintain – a professional relationship. In other words, don’t flaunt your friendship and behave ‘chummy’ in front of your fellow directors (keep in mind this extends to the posts you make on social media).
Take Control of your Emotions
If you were both standing for the role of Chair and you missed out, deal with your feelings (e.g. jealousy) and find a way to not let them negatively impact your role as director and friend. If you find it extremely difficult to effectively discharge your duties and responsibilities as a director while sitting on the same board as a friend, consider taking your skills to another board.
At the end of the day, you are both mature adults who should be able to work effectively together going forward, and if need be have critical conversations if your relationship takes on a different life.
What other advice would you give to someone in a sticky board friendship situation?