Board Room Confidential: Working term limits to your advantage

It happens all the time. Board members serve for long, extended periods of time, sometimes indefinitely. This can make for a difficult and uncomfortable situation. You are grateful and value your board members’ dedication to your organization …. But it is time for some fresh ideas. A common question asked is:

HOW CAN WE BEST HANDLE THIS SENSITIVE TOPIC?

We interviewed Katherine Whitney, our cofounder and managing partner on this topic. She recently dealt with this common pushback and having over 30 years of experience in the industry, who better to explain:

  • Why term limits are so important; the risks in not having them and their added value.
  • The best approach to part ways amicably and keep these individuals engaged in the organization.
  • How best to move forward.

Question: Why bother with term Limits?

Katherine Whitney: Term Limits are a tough topic to tackle.  You can get away without them as long as it works, but when it stops working, I believe the organization is at greater risk of not making a smooth transition.  Here are some of the risks in not having term limits:

  1.  One or more people stop doing the work that needs to be done by board members, and there’s no graceful way to have them rotate off the board.  I’ve seen this happen with board members who love an organization and who have worked hard for it, but at some point, they just get tired or get involved in other things.  Because the organization is important to them, they don’t want to resign; because they’ve done great work in the past, others on the Board are hesitant to ask them to rotate off.  Then that lack of work lowers the standard for engagement for all Board members.
  2.  Especially, for an original founding board, there is the risk that a large part of the board wears out all at once.  Several key people are suddenly really ready to rotate off, but no one has been brought along to replace them.
  3.  People who are not on the Board but who are interested in the organization begin to sense that there’s no place for them at the governing level.
  4.  Adding new people to the Board increases the opportunity to broaden the circle. A Board that is filled with legacy Board members doesn’t have enough space for new members.

Question: Can we say goodbye on good terms?

KW: Absolutely. Most organizations have community leaders associated with them.  They can roll off the Board when their terms are up, stay off for a year and stay engaged, and come right back on to start a new term.  That can work well.

Another option is to consider an emeritus category.  Typically, you would limit the number of spots available, but this would give you a handful of spots for Board members who have gone above and beyond.  These seats are forever but are usually non-voting.

Question: How do we continue to bring new and fresh talent to join our board?

Answer: Cultivating and engaging new board members is challenging.  I often compare it to the discipline of getting & staying in shape.  It’s hard to build the processes and transitions that are needed, and you need to give yourself some time and be regulated about taking the right steps.

It’s best to get some buy in from Board members before you approach new people.  It’s important to have a process that the governance (aka nominating or board development) committee takes to:

  • Determine the skills and experience needed from new board members
  • Identify potential new board members
  • Agree on which ones to approach

In short, the lesson is clear. Term Limits are a necessity. They act as a safeguard not only for the organization but also to keep a healthy and productive environment in the board room.

Katherine Whitney is a co-founder and managing partner of Warren Whitney. With more than 30 years of experience in helping organizations reach their potential, Katherine has a passion for helping to strengthen non-profit organizations by building good business practices to support their missions. Katherine holds an MBA from University of North Caroline at Chapel hill, and a BS in Mathematics from Davidson College. She is also a graduate of Leadership Metro Richmond and a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer. If you are looking for help with your business, email Katherine at KWhitney@warrenwhitney.com .