The Case for Board Member Term Limits

I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. I’ve been on the wrong side of an important association board practice for many years.

Because I had the good fortune to work with two exceptional board leaders and clients – Harry Mason with the SCSI Trade Association (STA), and Marlis Humphrey with the former Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) Forum – I saw that each organization would be denied Harry’s and Marlis’s talents as board leaders if term limits had been in effect.

I developed a strong rationale to justify my position. I reasoned that organizations should not have to self-impose term limits if the organization already has the very best board members in the important roles of governance and leadership. Besides, term limits institutionalize practices that boards and memberships should implement each time elections come around: to select the most qualified candidates for the board. Sounds good, no?

The problem is that boards are not always very courageous, and their association members generally do not pay close attention to their decisions and activities.

For example, every year board nominating committees present a slate of candidates to fill expired terms. In my experience, the committee nominates only enough candidates to fill open positions. If a board member’s tenure is up, he or she can run for a new term. The result is an uncontested election of candidates that have been vetted by a board that does not want to offend anyone, especially an incumbent, by rejecting them from the recommended slate. This is a recipe for stagnant organizations that avoid making necessary changes when external factors call for course corrections.

My Own Board Service

Lest anyone think I’m throwing stones, I’m not. This conclusion comes from my own board experience. Of the three boards I served on until the beginning of 2020 (two non-profits and one for-profit), each has board members whose best contributions are behind them. None of these boards have term limits – yet! Steps are being taken to improve these boards and bring on new talent, but it should be easier than it is. Term limits do not eliminate the issue of non-performing or unconstructive board members. Term limits simply ensure that those issues do not run on for years and years.

The Benefits of Term Limits

If a board is paying attention to the number of contiguous terms a board member can serve, they will know far in advance how many new board members they need to recruit and which talents they will need to replace on the board. A board committed to excellence will work on maintaining their recruitment activities year-round and will not wait until the final board meeting of the year before the ballots go to the membership.

To Summarize – I would recommend

  1. Identify the knowledge or experience you are looking for in a new board member, based on the board’s strategic priorities.
  2. Keep your eyes open for new board member candidates year-round.
  3. Begin speaking with possible new board members well before election time so that you can get them on the ballot.

Exceptional organizations begin with exceptional boards and exceptional boards are committed to governance best practices.

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