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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

You know that old saying, "the fish rots from the head"? When it comes to a board of directors, never were truer words spoken.

An effective board is the last line of defense for shareholders, regulators and other stakeholders. This small but mighty peer group is responsible for overseeing the management of an organization, so if one thing is flawed – if just one director's behaviour is disruptive or toxic – it can be the difference between performance and non-performance throughout the entire organization. Poor dynamics have that kind of ripple effect, unfortunately.

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As an external adviser and specialist in corporate governance and accountability, my work has allowed me to study and evaluate boards, investors and directors across all sectors, including health care.

I've never investigated a board failure where flawed dynamics was not a major contributor, which is why I know for a fact that great boards don't just "happen." They are carefully and critically designed to be functionally sound. They have to be. A board is just too important an entity to rely on crossed fingers and wishful thinking.

When it comes to toxic behaviours that can bring down a board, I've pretty much seen it all. Excessive power, over-reliance on one person, dominant managers, lack of integrity and trustworthiness, confidentiality breaches, lack of transparency and accountability, lack of meeting preparation, undermining board decisions, poor information flow management – these are all warning signs that need to be addressed immediately. But perhaps the biggest red flag is the dysfunctional director and the underperforming director.

I've seen dissention amongst the ranks on some of the most iconic boards in Canada. In one instance, there was a director who was so toxic that the board had been consumed by theatrics for nearly a year. When I spoke to the other directors, almost all of them wanted the bullying to stop, but no one had the courage to pull the trigger. Even the chair of the board was too weak to take action. Ultimately, my recommendation was to replace both of them in order to settle things down and get the board back on track.

People are often surprised to hear that the best thing you can do to begin to heal divisions and repair a broken board is to let someone go. But in many cases that's the only way to start the mending process. It's not easy to unwind chronic dysfunction on a board – it takes a strong chair or third-party supervision – but getting rid of the root cause is the best way to start. The key is handling the dismissal respectfully and diplomatically.

I once conducted a peer review for the board of an important and highly regulated company. If the board of this particular company makes a mistake, people can die, so it was critical for them to get it right. Every time.

During the review process, I noticed that one director rated another last on almost every single performance dimension. When questioned, the director proceeded to tell me, category by category, why he had rated his peer so poorly – even though others had given that same director exemplary ratings. It eventually became clear that he despised the director he had critiqued so harshly. There was simply no way to repair this enmity, and it had no place on this – or any – board. My recommendation was to remove the hostile director. And that's exactly what happened.

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Board members need to be proactive when they sense there is trouble brewing. The one regret directors repeatedly express is not speaking up and calling out toxic behaviours until it was too late. Letting it fester only makes the situation worse for everyone involved, especially the company.

But of course the best way to create a functional, healthy board is to avoid dysfunction from the start. Nominating committees need to spend more time at the front end recruiting directors, and on the back end retiring them. And they need to do it on the basis of expected and actual performance.

Unfortunately, most competency matrices don't include behaviour, and all directors have "warts." Nominating committees must do their due diligence, and that includes a proper competency matrix, the creation of long lists and short lists, interviews, background checks, and making sure to bring on directors who are not friends or known to current directors. A strong and experienced chair at the helm who can appreciate the value of a diverse board and make difficult decisions when necessary is another must-have.

An effective board doesn't happen by accident. Spend time and effort designing yours by recruiting independent thinkers who can leave their egos at the door, ask the tough questions, give the right advice – and do it all with a smile. Let the notion of, "iron hand in a velvet glove," be your yardstick as you create your dream team.

Dr. Richard Leblanc (@DrRLeblanc) is an associate professor of law, governance and ethics at York University (@yorkuniversity) and principal of Boardexpert.com Inc.

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