There's a propensity for like-minded folks to cluster together in group situations. When so many boards are comprised of people who know one another outside the board room (or may be related to one another) clustering is common....and can be a common problem. As we strive for greater diversity of board members, those who aren't from the same social or familial circles may find it especially difficult to break into the circle that is the board.
The executive director, nominating committee and board president need to be mindful of clustering or cliques, and consciously work to minimize their effect. The first rule of thumb is that everyone is diversely, but equally, skilled in the board room -- a tenet that needs to be voiced and modeled at every turn. It is to the long-term advantage of the organization to institutionalize this democratic vision.
There are several practical ways to minimize clusters:
- mix up the seating at meetings. Humans, being who they are, tend to sit with the people they know and in the same locations. Assign seats much as a savvy hostess would for a big dinner party, making sure that folks who don't know one another sit together and sprinkling the best conversationalists around the table. Use table cards large enough for all to read -- especially helpful for the new folks to learn names and faces. If you can, scramble the seating half way through the meeting.
- build small group discussions into the meeting agenda and assign people to these groups (or have folks count off or look for a colored sticker on their name card). Who says financial issues are only dealt with by the finance committee? Or building issues by the building committee? Mix it up in small group discussions! Your board members will get to know each other better and your organization may reap the rewards of new insights.
- build in social time for board members whenever and wherever possible. These are opportunities to kick back and get to know one another. Board members of an organization I know go out for beer after their meeting. Other boards incorporate a meal before or during their meetings.
The goal here is to get a diverse group of people thinking and (hopefully) performing as a team. You're the coach. No spectators allowed!