Wanted: A Great Board Chair

Aug 01, 2021

Wanted: Intelligent, relational, thick-skinned, kind, and visionary individual to lead organization through trying time while navigating strong personalities and difficult, often conflicting goals.

Who’s in?

That’s essentially the job description for a board chair.

This Harvard Business Review blog describes the best board chairs as judges. It’s an interesting analogy. Find people who are intelligent and with great character and appeal to their desire to do something the right way, whether or not it’s the most profitable way.

That’s what you need in the chairman of the board.

They don’t always grab the most attention, but they keep things moving and increase the organization’s effectiveness and adherence to the vision. There’s a no-nonsense attitude and a mindset of “I’m not on your side and I’m not on the other guy’s side. I’m on the company’s side.”

The size of the job for a board chair varies wildly depending on the size of the organization and what the enterprise is facing. But in nearly every case, the job can be broken down into two sectors: at the meeting and outside the meeting.

At the meeting

There are two big errors board chairs can make at a board meeting: 1). Say too little; 2). Say too much.

I’ll deal with each in turn.

In most cases, the board chair comes to the meeting with the agenda, and the best board chairs get that agenda accomplished. Rabbit conversations are quickly chased back onto the main path. Pet projects are pushed back into the cage. 

Say too little and someone will dominate the meeting. And that’s cardinal rule #1 for a board chair: Don’t let anyone dominate the meetings—even if it’s the confident CEO trying to convince everyone she’s right.

Of course, to do this, you have to be comfortable in your (thick) skin. You’re might hurt some feelings at the meetings, but you have to move through the items of conversation and reach conclusions. Board members need to walk away unified on vision and direction, and executives need to walk away with clear marching orders.  It’s on the board chair to make sure there’s alignment on key strategy and that progress is made.

At the same time, you have to be very careful not to dominate the meeting yourself.  Allow your idea people to express fresh ideas. Encourage the operations people to speak about the day to day. Engage in some relational time. 

The quickest way to make an enemy of the executive is to control the conversation so much that the executive starts fearing you’re planning to hijack or handcuff the company. And remember, being the chairman doesn’t mean you have the most to say or offer.

Outside of the meeting

Above all else, develop great working relationships with the executives and other board members.

This article lists a handful of practical tips for board chairs, including the following:

  • Don’t surprise the executive
  • Understand the executive’s perspective and preferences
  • Depend on the executive’s strengths and use them
  • Recognize the executive’s weaknesses and secure resources to assist him/her
  • Be aware of your executive’s hot buttons and pet peeves

In other words, the best board chairs are both a support to the executive and a trusted outside voice. 

Take a few minutes to consider whether you play those roles for the directional leader of the organization. If you criticized the executive’s course of action, would it be taken as a personal affront or as a valuable insight? Is the executive better at his job because of your relationship with him?

As for the other board members, Fast Company has some good tips here including the idea that board chairs should meet with each board member individually during the year.

In addition to working well with others, board chairs need to take the lead on preparing for meetings—getting needed information from executives and pushing issues to board members to consider before the meeting. What things are worth pushing a special email or conference call? The board chair is the one who makes that call. Take the lead in determining the key three or four metrics to discuss at every board meeting.

My friend, Kurt Keilhacker, is the board chair of Praxis. He is the best Board Chair I know or have ever served with. I‘ve heard him say often, “More than anything else, you have to keep an organization viable. The prime directive is to get to the next waypoint in time before the tank is empty. If you can’t do that, every other strategy or tactic is just academic.”

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