The now-former board chair of a mid-sized nonprofit organization resigned hastily in frustration. Having identified some management irregularities, he was riding roughshod on the chief executive, who countered with complaints of debilitating micromanagement. Until the chair’s departure, however, the rest of the board remained unaware of any problems. The chair believed it his responsibility to run interference for board members weary from a sustained period of organizational growth, so he withheld his concerns until his exit interview.
Armed with new information, the board eventually reached its own similar conclusions and took corrective action only after the loss of both staff and revenue. Ironically, the former board chair’s misguided attempt to “protect” the board actually exaggerated the organization’s risk.
This illustration depicts a few highlights of what the board chair is not – protector, filter of information, micromanager – so let’s explore what the role really IS. In keeping with a dictionary.com definition of “chair,” the position “occupies a seat of office or authority and…presides over a meeting, committee, etc.” But it takes more than a gavel to execute the role effectively.
An optimal board chair functions as a strategic partner to the CEO or Executive Director. These two essential leadership positions are counterparts, whereas one manages the organization while the other manages the board. Inherent in the latter role is responsibility for facilitation – of meetings, discussions, decision-making, and board process. The board chair must drive the board to be as effective as it can be, with an eye toward continuous improvement. It means fostering the collection and distribution of information and data, not sabotaging or diverting it. It also means supporting effective board process and executive leadership, not protecting either from one another or itself.
When the board chair of one organization requested a leave of absence, the vice chair prepared to step into the leadership role. During a brief interim period without board leadership, the strategic planning committee continued working toward its established goals on its established timeline. To accommodate the ambitious schedule determined by the board, the committee recommended some shortcuts that would enable the board to keep pace with its deadlines.
Upon learning of the committee’s recommendations, the newly appointed acting board chair called to question the board’s intent. Meeting a pre-determined timeline at the expense of appropriate board process – in this case, including the input of the whole board and senior staff in a visioning retreat – seemed short-sighted. Instead, the new board chair revisited the topic on her meeting agenda and guided the board to an informed decision about the implications of following the original timeline. The board ultimately agreed that making time to work collaboratively and collectively with senior staff would be an invaluable step in the planning process, even at the expense of a deadline.
In both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, the role of board chair seems to be evolving from figurehead or benevolent dictator to champion and conductor. Nonprofit board chairs function like the independent lead directors, who are not part of management, in for-profit companies. Eugene Fram, a blogger with Huffington Post, finds the following insights from the independent board chair of Spirit Airlines relevant to the nonprofit sector:
- Support Management Efforts – noted above, this fundamental responsibility takes form in countless ways, including ensuring that qualified people are recruited to serve on board committees. Building this “bench strength,” as it were, provides the CEO or ED with needed expertise and knowledge to achieve performance goals. Of course, including functional or topical expertise on board committees requires commitment to strategic board development and recruiting overall.
- Communications Between the Board Chair and Management – to avoid surprises in the board room, the board chair and chief executive must communicate frequently while guarding against the nonprofit tendency toward micromanagement. At Spirit Airlines, the board chair scheduled a weekly conference call with the CEO for updates on major operating/strategic issues and invited any available board members to join, as desired.
- Transparency – again, it is important to avoid surprises, not only between the board and management, but between the organization and its stakeholders. Technology makes it easier than ever to disclose information – from the IRS 990 report to strategic decisions that might draw criticism – so the board chair must strive to cultivate openness, not secrecy, in board culture.
Selecting Board Leadership
Given the importance of the board leadership role, identifying the next board chair requires a strategic selection process. Some leaders joke they were selected when they stepped out of the room; others inherit the role by following the line of succession among board officers. In neither case are candidates necessarily evaluated based on clear and current criteria, aligned with the strategic goals of the organization. (If the organization’s goals include rapid growth, for instance, then a board chair who prefers the status quo would not serve the organization well, at that particular time.)
Beyond the nuances of style and expertise, there are some basic criteria that prospective board chairs must meet. According to Laura Otten, Executive Director of The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University, a good board chair brings the following:
- An understanding of the real roles and responsibilities of a nonprofit board.
- An understanding of the real roles and responsibilities of a board chair.
- Passion for, and commitment to, the mission of the organization.
- Respect and appreciation for the collaborative, group decision-making process.
- An ability to nudge and hold others accountable (without being demeaning and seeming bossy).
- Recognition that the person filling the position of board chair is a role model for other board members.
- The respect of all other board members as well as the executive director and staff.
- Proficiency in facilitation, enabling him/her to run a successful meeting that provides for a safe and open space for discussion, engages everyone in the process, moves the process forward to a logical end, enables the clash of ideas and not the clash of personalities, etc.
- Great communication skills, both written and verbal, with appreciation of the important role communication plays in successful group dynamics.
- The time to do the job and do it well.
- The ability to inspire others, particularly to be the best board members they can be.
Every member of the board – and staff, for that matter – matters to an organization, but the right board chair can mean the difference between mere effort and ultimate effectiveness in board process, mission impact, and overall sustainability of an organization.