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Post-Election in the Board Room

How did the 2016 presidential election impact your board? How might the change in Administration affect relationships on your board, and thus board effectiveness? It’s tempting to avoid the entire topic, but imagine this:

  • While board members did not say anything explicit about the election during meetings, during social times several members made it clear they supported opposing candidates.

  • Many staff and board members worked on one or the other campaign (staff on their own time of course).

  • There are just a few board members of color on a board that is mostly white. The members from immigrant communities became increasingly quiet at board meetings as the 2016 election season dragged on.

  • While the initial post-election emotions have subsided, levels of trust and camaraderie have suffered. The CEO and Board President are considering opening a conversation about how federal policy changes and the political climate might impact the organization, but are concerned they would be opening a can of worms.

In presenting a similar scenario to a group of Harvard Kennedy School colleagues shortly after the election, several people were uncomfortable even imagining such opposing politics around the board table, or a board discussion that mirrors the divisiveness of the election. OK, this discussion did take place in Cambridge (MA) where Clinton won with 89.2% of the vote. Yet in Massachusetts as a whole, one of the bluest of the blue, Trump still garnered over a million votes out of 3.3 million cast for president. Check out the town by town results if you are not yet convinced that even in Massachusetts there is a real divide in our electorate. From what I have heard from clients and colleagues in states that either supported Trump, or had extremely close results, silence surrounding the election was the norm at board meetings. “We didn’t hear anything other than don’t forget to vote.” On one board, members who supported Trump stayed quiet, never expressing their allegiance publicly. And from an involved voter in a just-barely-red southern state, “the majority have kept on the quiet side so as not to incite anger.” The reality is that boards will need to talk about funding streams in the new era. But will they also talk about the meaning of the election, and policies coming down the pike more broadly? How will board members work together during meetings, while continuing to hold strongly opposing views? Who will leave the board, and who will stay, and why? And how will this impact the overall board composition? I venture to say that over the coming years issues will emerge on boards that bring not only emotions, but differences in core values, to the surface. National events will occur about which board members will feel very strongly, and that directly impact constituents. Silence will neither be sustainable nor fruitful. So what is the flip side of silence on the board?

  • The board would be able to communicate honestly regarding disparate opinions, which of course are reflected in the greater community.

  • The board could set a positive example for other community organizations dealing with similar tensions by finding ways to bridge the divide.

  • The board could be more effective in advancing the mission of the organization if there is greater internal understanding.

If your board is considering an intentional dialogue to move into the Trump years as gracefully as possible, consider these questions: What planning needs to be done to ensure you succeed? Which board members do you need to speak with in advance so that a discussion will address issues of import for your organization, and allow for substantive differences of opinion? What follow-up steps will be crucial? Final tips to keep in mind

  1. Together, create a list of basic agreements for the conversation — for example no generalizations about groups of people, use “I” statements, share the air time.

  2. Focus on giving each board member a chance to express her or himself. As the organization Essential Partners suggests, starting with questions is often useful. Perhaps each board member could propose a question that relates to your organization and the election results. What themes rise to the top? Which questions provide a good starting point for discussion? For excellent sample questions, download Reaching Across the Red/Blue Divide.

  3. Identify the best facilitator (not necessarily the Board President or CEO), and choose the best setting for your dialogue. Don’t rush the conversation.

And let me know what happens! I am truly curious.

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