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Appreciating the Mix of Qualities a Great Chair Brings to the Role

By Lyn McDonell, CAE

Across the table sat a very nervous Chair of the board.  It was going to be a tough conversation giving Monica constructive feedback.  I had interviewed the board asking how well it was functioning.  Some of the feedback was about Monica’s leadership – and it was not positive.  Monica was seen as “in the weeds” and in overt conflict with management.  Under her abrupt style of leadership, the tone of the meetings had changed.  The other directors and the Chief Staff Officer (CSO) were unhappy, asking themselves how they had gotten into this situation. How could I help Monica move forward?  I knew Monica had studied governance and believed she was in the right.  She was doing a few things well – helping the board create a board work plan, ensuring the board had the right information for decision-making, and more.  However, overall this board and this Chair were not matched. Things were going downhill.

The role of the Chair is nuanced -- more than running meetings.  When the function is fulfilled well, the Chair is a transformative uplifting influence.  When an individual is not the right leader for a board, things can become messy.

How does a volunteer achieve a high level of performance and impact in Chair role?  No one can walk on water but there are skills and knowledge that help. There is also the clarity of the role itself, i.e. how the board, management, and the incumbent Chair understand the Chair’s function.  Putting the right person in place and ensuring that they are effective involves policies and processes to make this happen.

Not everyone will perform well in all aspects of this leadership role, however it is instructive to set out specific knowledge, skills and judgements that help him or her be effective.  

Maintaining a Governance Approach

If the Chair is fuzzy on the distinction between governance and operations, the board may wander into questions that should not be the board’s focus.  The Chair must ensure there is a clear and understood governance approach, i.e. a division of authority and decision-making.  This includes agreement regarding the role of the Chair.  Ideally this is written down in policy.

The personal factors that help individuals in this aspect of the role are:

  • Knowledge of governance fundamentals
  • Knowledge of the organizational by-laws and policies
  • Assertiveness to speak up when the board is in management’s domain
  • Alertness to when someone does have a good governance point

Identifying and Managing Board Work

No one should be more aware than the Chair of the board’s legal and leadership job. An excellent Chair will help the board fulfill the requirements of its role in a timely and organized way. This means identifying the board’s annual work plan (what board business is dealt with when), setting agendas that drives things forward, clearly mandating committee deliverables, and ensuring timely board input and decision-making. 

Specific knowledge areas and competencies that help are:

  • Knowledge of the various functions of a board (strategic planning, oversight of management, financial and risk oversight etc.)
  • Grasp of the organizational situation in financial, strategic, operational and stakeholder dimensions
  • Awareness of the annual planning and budgeting cycle of the organization
  • Ability to have an independent point of view from management as to what is the board’s concern
  • Organized and deliberate in terms of how issues are addressed and when, and by whom.

Developing the Potential of Directors and Monitoring their Performance

A strong roster of people who each contribute to their potential makes for a strong board.  A good Chair sees the board both as a group and as individuals.  He/she gets to know the other directors to build rapport and better draw out their contributions.  This helps him/her to know when to tap a director’s perspective and what committees and tasks suit their time, abilities and interests.  A great Chair mentors and encourages others. Moreover, when an individual director goes offside and/or underperforms, he/she steps up to have the conversation to get the individual back on course.

An excellent Chair is also concerned with the quality and performance of the officers’ work and all committees.  He/she knows the mandate of these roles, expresses genuine interest in their efforts, is a sounding board, and gently prods when necessary.

Some personal qualities that help with this aspect of the role are:    

  • Willingness and ability to be accessible to other directors
  • Fairness and even-handed approach to all directors (“no favorites”)
  • Courage to be both direct and caring in order to deal with issues
  • Being observant and a good listener
  • Demonstrating the ability to be trusted with confidences

Liaison with Management

The Chair is the main point of contact with the Chief Staff Officer (CSO). He/she must make sure that the board’s relationship with management is healthy and productive. The Chair is also a sounding board for the CSO, or should be. Since the board needs to know what is going on of significance, the Chair, along with the CSO, identifies what should be shared with the board.  The Chair leads or participates in the performance management process of the CSO – setting expectations and evaluating performance.  While the Chair may not do this alone, because of his/her proximity of to the CSO throughout the year, the Chair is a central person in the activity. These qualities support success in this aspect:

  • Understanding of the staff role and what authorities are delegated to the CSO
  • Ability to provide support and encouragement
  • Even-temperedness even when messages are not what the Chair wants to hear
  • Backbone to pursue a point with the CSO on behalf of the board
  • Ability to step in and defend management’s authority to other directors ensuring fairness and/or upholding of the governance approach

Managing Meetings

The most visible role of the Chair is running the meetings.   Cognizant that the board owns its agenda, he/she ensures items are relevant, time is appropriately allocated, and adequate information is provided in support.  At the meeting, the Chair manages directors’ participation and discussion in a way that allows different points of view to be heard while avoiding the domination of a few, philosophical digressions, and unproductive rehashing.  He/she must bring things to conclusion and ensure any next steps are clear.  This knowledge and these abilities support this aspect of the role:

  • Knowledge of basic parliamentary procedure and judgment regarding their application
  • Good strategic sense
  • Solid communication skills
  • Facilitation skills with the flexibility to vary the discussion format according to the item
  • Tactfulness, political acuity and ability to defuse a situation

Representing the Board Externally

A Chair has an important role to play externally.  He/she is the voice of the board to stakeholders. “Showing up” at organizational events is often an unstated expectation and there are collaborative relationships to nurture. The Chair ensures the board is sufficiently in touch with, and understands, stakeholders’ needs, interests and goals.  He/she is attuned to these shifts and changes and promotes accountability – demonstrating in words and action that stakeholders matter. The personal factors that help in this aspect of the role are:          

  • Willingness and time to build strong relationships between the organization and its  stakeholders
  • Genuine interest in people and other organizations
  • Judicious with what is shared outside the board  
  • Communications and human relations skills including the ability to -- with little to no preparation in advance -- say words publically about the organization’s mission and vision, relating to the audience at hand
  • Commitment to keep other board members informed about discussions with stakeholders

Evolving the Board

The excellent Chair is ambitious for his/her board, wanting it to be better.  A Chair should lead the adoption of “best practices” and help the board put into place the policies and processes that improve governance.  These include recruitment and nomination processes, orientation and board development, board evaluation, and directors’ assessments and so on. In this aspect of the role, this knowledge and these abilities help:

  • Willingness to learn about the leading practices in governance
  • Ability to pace change into a group, introducing “baby steps” of improvement
  • Being open to feedback personally
  • Being a role model him or herself

So back to Monica.  I did give her feedback and suggested ways she might want to reconsider her style at meetings.  She listened but she also dug in to her point of view.  In the end, she resigned and the board appointed another Chair. So, here is the lesson I saw reinforced in real life: boards must put into place the processes that ensure the careful selection of a Chair.  This involves a clear role description, a leadership pipeline so that there are prospects in view, and a deliberate selection process.

While no Chair is perfect, appreciating the mix of qualities that make for a great Chair helps incumbent Chairs, those who aspire to leadership, and the committees who assist their boards to select the next Chair.