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If you have ever worked for a tribal organization chances are you have had your own experiences in working with an oversight committee or board, directly or indirectly. The governing board is not uncommon in Native organizations.

In fact, boards and committees are often used to provide leadership structure and accountability to many Native businesses and organizations. But even the best model structures can experience problems when the board and staff are not on the same page. So, what makes working with a board so challenging for some? And why do so many administrators and managers experience conflict with their board? It could be confusion over a board’s purpose or lack of understanding of their particular prescribed roles and responsibilities.

To start with, let us first understand that the general definition of a board is: A governing body established to provide leadership, guidance and accountability on behalf of a business or organization. Furthermore, boards are used to develop policy and help maintain direction of the organization’s mission and vision. They are viewed as common necessities in the structure of most nonprofit organizations. They provide the top layer of leadership that allows an organization to function effectively. When attempting to work effectively with your organization there are some important things to consider.

It is also important to note that the specific roles and responsibilities of each board can vary, it usually depends on what is dictated in the original program plan or what has been outlined in the bylaws or operating procedures. This often creates confusion when we expect all boards to have a standard set of responsibilities (i.e. … approving program budgets or attending to human resources issues). Many times problems occur when there is a lack of understanding about what the roles and responsibilities are of a board or board member for their particular organization. Board and management conflict can lead to a dysfunctional organization, something we can’t afford in Indian country.

So, how can we improve our organizational operation from the top down? Here are some things that might help improve a working relation with your board.

Learn the specific duties and authoritative power of your particular board. This is important in understanding when they are functioning within their prescribed capacity and when they have crossed out of bounds.

Review and share the roles of administration and staff with your board. Outlining what everyone’s job duties are might keep the board from engaging in micro management.

Assess the dynamics of your board structure, identify the strengths and weaknesses of your board and try to determine how you will use their strengths while working to overcome weaknesses.

Hold board training and orientations for new board members. New members often come on board with limited experience and little understanding of your organization. It is important that they are thoroughly orientated on their role as a board member, any bylaws and policies they must function by, as well as the organizational mission and operations.

Encourage a leadership mentality among board members; this will help them focus on the future and strategic direction of the organization rather than on the day-to-day functions, which should be staff and administrative responsibilities.

Work to help the board hold efficient and productive meetings. Provide all information needed in a timely manner; assist with meeting logistics that will allow members to meet in a comfortable and adequate location; encourage the use of good meeting practices.

Keep your board involved. Make sure they are well informed on any important operational events. Keep updated on reports and activities that might involve them. Board members may become apprehensive if they feel information is being withheld from them.

Foster an environment of respect and professionalism. Encourage all members of your business or organization to interact in a positive manner. Do not allow organizational politics to become a way around working with your board.

Working effectively with your governing board can bring about great potential for success. Although it may at times be a challenging process, the outcome of a productive and progressive Native organization is certainly worth it. In Indian country the more positive organizational models we have, the better chances we have to overcome some of our greatest social challenges, while paving a way for a more successful future for our tribal nations.

Lucinda Hughes-Juan has many years of teaching and training in the fields of business and management, with a focus on the cultural dynamics in Native businesses and organizations. She is an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. She holds an MBA in global management, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in business and organizational management. E-mail her at