Over the last 15 years, I've consulted with a few clients who, in the midst of our strategic planning sessions or evaluation efforts, must deal with the added stress of handling conflict within their boards. At best, these conflicts are time- and energy-consuming hassles. At worst, they can derail an entire planning or implementation process or bring a foundation's momentum to a screeching halt.
I'm happy to report that extreme conflict is the exception rather than the rule. Most board members are rational, committed professionals. However, even among the most collegial boards there's always the possibility of conflict, and savvy foundation leaders I know have used the following approaches to diffuse disagreement smoothly and quickly.
1. Remain impartial. Never take sides. Not even in private. As a senior staff person, your role is to serve all of the board, not just a contingent. Although you may heartily agree with one board member over another, you are more likely to lead the full board to agreement if you treat all perspectives with respect and courtesy.
2. Stick to the facts. Good data can help end disagreements. Many times board members may disagree because of differing perspectives or assumptions. Using data to clarify an issue helps disprove assumptions. It also can remove the emotion from arguments and provide an objective, impassive pathway to agreement in which no board member is left with hurt feelings.
3. Frame the debate in terms of the mission. While board members bring many perspectives and life experiences to the table, their common thread is their service to your foundation's mission. Asking questions and generating conversations about challenges through a mission-focused lens can help the full board achieve greater clarity and alignment in their thinking.
4. Focus on the professional, not the personal. Board members are only human, and as such are subject to a range of personality conflicts, miscommunications, perceived slights and just plain not getting along. By keeping conversations focused on the professional questions at hand, you can send a clear message that disagreements of a personal nature have no place at the board table. (And yes, this can be much harder to achieve within family foundation boards, where personal relationships are the underlying bedrock.)
5. Find a confidential, outside sounding board to help maintain your objectivity - and possibly your sanity. Having someone else to talk to who is removed from the conflict can help you maintain your own objectivity. This could be a friend outside the foundation world, or a fellow CEO within it. Some regional associations, like the Southeastern Council of Foundations, offer CEO forums that create a "safe space" for discussions about a host of things - including dealing with board challenges.
Working with a board is an ongoing adventure that can lead to great things. But when the path gets rocky, the tips above can help you smooth the way and get back to doing the work you all believe in.