Service of How Do They Do It: The Do-Nothings Who Land On Top

March 27th, 2017

Categories: Associations, Blowing Smoke, Board of Directors, Do-Nothings, Lazy



I dedicate this post to a friend who works herself to the bone, achieves great things to benefit others both on and off boards of prominent organizations and who coined the name “do-nothings” in a recent conversation about a project we’re both involved with.

I’ve been on and around boards for years, a previous member of co-op, three industry and three not for profit boards and on countless committees that depend on board member support. The do-nothings who are consistently invited back to direct or support projects are the ones that puzzle me because they hold things up. Do-nothings populate them all.

Do nothing 1There are exceptions: Some work smart and hard and do spectacular jobs with miraculous results but frequently it is they who are tossed to the side without a second thought. The do-nothings, with hearty pledges for follow up information and tempting inflated promises that all come to naught are consistently invited back!

In addition to “life isn’t fair,” I know what you’re thinking: The do-nothings have connections or big bucks. Not always so!  In addition to bankrupt elbow grease, some bring to the table neither access to financial support nor prestige. What they do accomplish: They waste other people’s time.

As incoming president I started to attend committee meetings of one organization to see if there were any outstanding people I’d want on my board. This was the suggestion of a past president. I told a trusted colleague that so-and-so stood out with great ideas and energy. The trusted colleague warned, “Hot air. She talks a good game and never comes through.” I realized how easy it is to be duped.

What is the do-nothings’ secret? Why do boards–or managers or bosses–tolerate them especially if they contribute neither stature nor funds, only agita? How do the do-nothings live with themselves and dare to accept responsibilities they never fulfill?

Do nothing 2


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11 Responses to “Service of How Do They Do It: The Do-Nothings Who Land On Top”

  1. Hank Goldman Said:

    We will never ever give away our secret of how we get away with it. Don’t ask. Ha ha.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I asked for it!

  3. Anonymous Said:

    Hi jeanne, I cannot resist.

    BB comes to mind. She was MIA while on our board the years Frieda [not her real name] and I managed the educational foundation. Then she was given a major award by the organization. Go figure!!

  4. hb Said:

    I know exactly what you mean. I’ve seen this kind of thing wherever I’ve worked or lived, America, Europe or the third World; the public or private sector, non-profit or for-profit. There is no secret to it. It just is. Human beings are irretrievably flawed. Incompetence, laziness, obnoxiousness, passive/aggressiveness, dishonesty, incompatibility, whatever, have always been present whenever they have gotten together to do something. If you are a manager, the trick is work around or through these “road blocks.” If you are not, you can always go somewhere else. (Remember Horace Greeley’s “Go West, young man.”)

    The useless board member syndrome is sometimes compounded by well-intentioned outside pressures, which can create unhelpful work environments riddled with cynicism. A case in point was the entity I worked for in the 1960s and 70s. Its chairman was a wonderful man of enormous integrity, who was able but thoughtful, tough but fair, courageous but careful, truthful and sincere. The social revolution of the era suddenly forced him to bring on to his board a woman and an African American. Qualified candidates for the jobs were in extremely short supply, but he did manage to find two apparently suitable individuals whom he had elected forthwith to the board. He didn’t expect much out of either of them. The woman, to his relief, was one of your “do-nothings,” content to collect her fat director’s fees, and not cause trouble. The African American was another story. He turned out to be a brilliant politician who was immensely helpful in organizing the company’s abandonment of a number of unprofitable operations in African American neighborhoods. He, for one, earned his fees many times over.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I have a list of similar [non] participants on the boards I’ve been involved with the length of my rather large hand! And then there were colleagues or freelancers who held up work projects. Argh.

  6. Martha Takayama Said:

    One thing I have experienced is that there are people who just thrive on going to meetings to plan other meetings ad infinitum. There are also people who really love to attach themselves to causes or organizations and try to rush around seeming important. I am at a loss to explain how those phenomena occur and why they are tolerated.

    But then aren’t our President, his family, his advisers, and his spokesmen and women simply the most detailed and complete examples of ” do-nothings’ (and know-nothings) whose inexplicable secrets and collective lack of clear vision have propelled them to the top at least for what is hoped will be a brief moment?

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Not quite sure why the chairman was relieved by the do-nothing woman but I figure you’d expect me to bite which is why you worded your comment that way especially since you’ve often said that “some of my best reports were women.” MUNCH. Crunch. I bit.

    As for the unprofitable businesses in African American neighborhoods, it’s a shame that the new board member couldn’t help them turn around their enterprises but then, as anyone who reads my posts knows by now, Pollyanna should have been my middle name. Or perhaps you were baiting me again.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    As to your first comment, SO TRUE. When I opened my business I would marvel at how much I got done and then I realized that I didn’t have to attend unecessary meetings! The weekly kind that act as a deadline to make people report work done are useful especially if they last half an hour or less.

    Your example of the do-nothings at the top of things these days brought Jared Kushner to mind. Imagine going on vacation to ski at a crucial turning point for your boss. Reminds me of a colleague at my first job after college. She called in sick for a week and returned to the office [in NYC] midwinter with a glorious tan. She’d been to Puerto Rico. Do these people have nerve or what?

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    Like it or not, so called “do nothings” will always be part of the scene, at times for totally obscure reasons. It’s not occurred to me to be critical, since there’s little to be gained.

    Some people make a career of appearing on prestigious “grocery lists.” Apparently there’s something romantic attached with seeing ones name frequently in print.

    I’ve recently been asked to serve on a committee for which I am unable to be of much help, and lost no time pointing it out. In doing so, learned a reason for inviting potential deadwood to a cause. The long list also serves a positive purpose: good PR for the host. So perhaps some “do nothings” exist for the common good after all!

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If I wanted someone smart who wrote well, was good with numbers and worked hard for every cause you believed in on my committee you’d be top on the list. Don’t sell yourself short. When you no longer have a moment to look left or right so overburdened you are with projects, once the committee chair realizes this, if he/she didn’t before, let us know!

    I see why people want to be on boards as you imply to appear important and see their names in print but then how dare they hang out and do zip and why, if they bring nothing more than hot air to the table, are some consistently invited back to take up space and irritate those who are getting the work done?

  11. Anonymous Said:

    Jeanne, this is priceless! The answer could be the secret of life!

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