Not Everyone is a Fit for the Chair

by Lyn McDonell

What is the most important role on the board in which to have the right person?  The Chair.  Yet many organizations don’t have a deliberate process for choosing the Chair.  I have often observed a board meeting and thought “This Chair could be much more effective” or “This board needs a different style of Chair at this time.”  Unfortunately it is hard to do anything once an individual is in the role. 

Boards need the right style of leader to suit both the times and their stage of development.  For example:

  • Decision-making may move at the wrong pace.
  • The Board may suddenly find itself stuck in the weeds if the Chair is too detail-oriented.
  • A Chair who is overly formal and constrained in his or her approach may not foster the candid Board discussion needed to build consensus and the Board’s resolve in key decisions.
  • Conflict can arise if the Chair lacks the personal skills (or stomach) to manage contrary views.
  • The Chair and the CEO may clash. 
  • The Chair may be unable to represent the organization or help manage issues. 

Sometimes there is a clear succession path and there is a Vice-Chair or Chair-elect identified.  It is important that Vice-Chairs start thinking of themselves as the next Chair. 

What can organizations do to ensure great leadership arrives at the board table?

  • Start the work of the Nominating Committee three months earlier than it feels it “needs to”.
  • Before renewing “good people” for second board terms, think about the entire leadership funnel.  You may actually need the vacancies to bulk up the leadership potential for the long term.
  • Since good directors create a pool of solid candidates to serve as Chair in the future, recruit a competency or skill-based board.
  • Have a role description that sets out the requirements of the Chair.
  • Double-track your recruitment efforts: call for expressions of interest and actively solicit high-potentials.
  • Identify high-potential people on the board, encourage their interest and plan their leadership roles carefully so they get the experience they need.
  • Interview candidates to ensure they have the necessary qualifications and understanding of the requirements of the role. 

And what about if you are that struggling current Chair?  Here is what may help:

  • Plan the meeting carefully.  Note points to make and key questions to ask alongside each agenda.
  • Allocate realistic times to items on the agenda.
  • Seek coaching help from the Past-Chair or if necessary from an external resource.
  • See yourself as all leaders do (no one is perfect) as in continuous improvement.  Ask for constructive “feed-forward”: “What is something I should try to do next time?” 

While a board can manage well with a poorly-performing board member, it is far more challenged when that person is in charge of the meeting and the face of the organization’s governance.  A good Chair contributes much to the organization – fostering teamwork, instilling confidence, providing focus, communicating the board’s commitment to the mission.  Focus on this position, and much else will go right.


~ by Lyn McDonell
Photo Credit - Mark Kilner

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