Thursday, May 12, 2011

Educating Governing Board Members About Cabals

Cabals are very small groups, typically three or four people, who conspire to control, co-opt or undermine organizations outside the normal channels of influence, decision making and policy, usually for pecuniary gain but sometimes out of boredom.

Many people who fall into cabals by association with a ring leader not by intent or conspiracy but the result unfortunately is the same, a pain in the butt and a tremendous waste of productivity to the organization.

During a nearly four-decade long career as a CEO for organizations in three different communities, I gained experience dealing directly with five or six cabals that I know of and several others while serving on other boards. Some were entirely internal to the governing boards, others fronted for outside special interests.

Hey, as Joseph Heller wrote in Catch 22, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Here are ten clues that may help CEOs and, more importantly, governing board members for organizations learn to recognize, avoid and disarm cabals:

  • Cabals try to avoid processing concerns directly to or through chief executives, preferring end-runs instead that will paint the executive into a corner or in extreme cases behead the organization.

  • Cabals prefer opinions, especially their own, to information-based decision making and firmly believe they are smarter.

  • Cabals form around a consistent ring leader but members may change over time and even be innocent to the primary motive or ulterior motive.

  • Cabals prefer the push and shove of politics to logic or best practices and appear to disrespect organizational codes of ethics and governing board job descriptions.

  • Cabals rarely read or don’t read to digest content or for understanding, sometimes for plausible deniability, so they can continue to resurrect the same concern to new faces.

  • Cabals disrespect normal channels for giving input or resolving concerns and dismiss any answer, no matter how well grounded, that doesn’t go their way.

  • Cabals disrespect and seek to undermine governing boards, sometimes blackballing others or using internal factions and rump sessions or by fronting for outside special interests.

  • Cabals can be persistent, trying again and again, often over a number of years, probing for new or unsuspecting board members misrepresenting that governing responsibilities must include content expertise.

  • Cabals are equally prevalent among public, private or non-profit sector individuals and sometimes involve a combination.

  • Cabals are best disarmed when board members respond by arranging a face to face meeting with the chief executive and then helping the executive report the results to the full board including naming the individuals involved.

Cabals have little fear of being revealed or of participants “paying a price” because, by nature, organizations want to avoid controversy and embarrassment. They are often governed by business people immediately focused on keeping the “boat from rocking,” bored adrenalin junkies stirred by any excitement or controversy and elected officials who are glad to have company given the state of partisan politics.

Cabals are protected most by sound-bite-understaffed-he said-she said-conflict-fueled news coverage that given limitations just won’t be able to distill or pinpoint the reality.

The best way to avoid or quickly disarm cabals quickly is to thoroughly orient board members on how to immediately identify them and redirect their concerns through proper channels.

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