Successful Board Chair

Tips from the Hot Seat: How to be a Better Board Chair

When the executive director of a sizeable nonprofit organization mentioned his board chair had stopped speaking to him, I was speechless. For the third time in as many years, I had heard the same confession from a nonprofit executive and was reminded how personal board leadership is. And how precarious the board chair/chief executive relationship can be, despite the indisputable importance of both positions.

According to the Center for Nonprofit Management’s Nonprofit Answer Guide (based on BoardSource information), successful nonprofits share two common qualities:

  1. a strong executive director
  2. an engaged, collaborative board chair. “Without exception, the role of board chair is paramount to ensuring an active, focused and supportive board,” which ultimately ensures a healthy and effective organization.

Unfortunately, I could think of numerous exceptions to effective board leadership. In recent months, I’ve encountered a few doozies beyond the board chair’s silent treatment. In one organization, the board chair was critically unwell, unable to attend meetings, and unwilling to step aside. In two others, board chairs tried fruitlessly to manage crises they inadvertently created for their chief executives without telling the board. Still two more organizations were hampered by the limitations of their board chairs: one whose discomfort with board process kept opportunities for board discussion and strategy off all meeting agendas; and another whose rigid stance on board recruiting (“it’s worked this way for 85 years, so why would we change?”) prevented the board from diversifying its composition or perspective.

Not so ironically, those last two examples represent the crux of the board chair’s authority, at least from a corporate perspective. According to a corporate board chair in Management Today, the chairman “only really (has) absolute control of two things… (deciding) who is on the board and…in the board meeting, (controlling) what is discussed and for how long.” Though many agenda items are fixed, the “weight of emphasis can be shifted by the chairman.” Let’s explore each assertion:

In the nonprofit sector, best practice gives the board development committee responsibility for gatekeeping board membership, but the chair certainly can influence nominations and selection. One colleague explained she started looking for her successor on her first day as board chair. “Our board member terms are three years, but the chair serves indefinitely because the job is notoriously hard to fill.” She committed to cultivating leadership on and around the board to ensure bench strength behind her and an exit path in front of her.

As for the board chair’s authority over what warrants board attention, BoardSource asserts the chair shapes the board’s culture, work, and impact by facilitating good governance. He or she sets the tone for board members and has significant influence over how the board’s time gets used. Similarly, the expert cited in Management Today explains, “the chairman’s role is about influence and persuasion…(and) making sure the board has a proper discussion about the things that really matter.”

My colleague learned that early in her tenure as board chair. She knew from the onset that her board was intolerant of change, as evidenced by a history of avoiding strategic planning. Not surprisingly, the board lacked clarity about what should follow the completion of a large scale capital improvement project. To move the board – and ultimately, the organization – forward, this savvy board chair married planning to the reaffirmation of values, which she used to convince board members to revisit critical conversations. After all, the organization’s values had been developed 100 years prior, so how should they be applied in a modern context?

She realized concern about risk management also could be leveraged as a tool to shift board culture. Asked to describe the significance of her role as board chair, my colleague offered thoughtfully, “I’m chief steward of the culture.” She acknowledged it’s notably hard to measure against that particular metric. “Every decision must align with the group ethos of values and other ways in which we identify ourselves…Board leadership,” she explained, “is about marketing and alignment. Are our governing policies aligned with the world today?” The use of technology, for instance, wasn’t considered in most boards’ original workflow, but it is increasingly indispensable for boards with a culture that integrates innovation.

My colleague successfully embraced the paradox of the board chair role. According to another corporate board expert in Management Today, the chair functions as both the board’s cheerleader and its chief of police, or both coach and challenger. The role requires good listening skills, an appreciation of group dynamics, and – to the surprise of some – enough humility to avoid usurping the authority of the whole board or the chief executive.

In the corporate sector, that delicate balance of characteristics presents an irony in that executive success is a common prerequisite for board leadership, yet “the qualities that make a great CEO typically make a bad chairman.” Thus the board chair role can be hard to fill, but not just on the corporate side. Nonprofit leaders also accumulate experience in management, which is distinctly different than board governance.

The board chair must cultivate an effective relationship – better, a partnership – with the chief executive, without stepping on toes or standing too far back. Contrary to popular belief, however, the clarification of roles and responsibilities between the board chair and executive director is not the foundation of an effective partnership. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, the core ingredient is trust. A study conducted a decade ago showed it’s best for board chairs and executives to be flexible, not prescribed, in “how they structure their work together – empowering each other to consider their individual strengths, interests, and the organization’s important work…’”

According to the Nonprofit Answer Guide, there are several important ways the board chair and executive director must work together:

  • Partnering to make sure board resolutions are carried out.
  • Appointing committee chairs and recommending who will serve on committees.
  • Preparing strategic agendas for board meetings that are geared to decision-making.
  • Conducting new board member orientation.
  • Each acting as spokespersons, when necessary.

Which brings us back to the board chair who stopped speaking to his executive director. Their stalemate is based on an assumption that the organization will endure their dysfunction, suggesting the relationship is perceived as tangential to core functions. On the contrary, though, their partnership is essential to moving the organization forward.

How does a board chair determine the right course? In the case of my colleague who embraces her role as board chair, she aims simply to “do the right thing” for the organization. She asks herself, will it help or hinder? And she is constantly assessing whether she and/or the board are doing anything that might compromise the organization’s sustainability.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.