Selecting a Chair for your Board

One of the most important tasks for a director is selecting a Chair (or President) to lead the board. If you’re new to a board – or are a new director – this task can be a little overwhelming.

Even in my relatively short board career I have recognised the extremely important and influential position of the Chair of a board. My experiences – both positive and negative – has bought some clarity to how to select a board Chair.

Where to Find a Chair

There are generally two main ways in which a board Chair will be recruited: from the existing board cohort, or from outside the board (i.e. a new person to the board recruited specifically for the Chair role). There are times when either of these options will be the most appropriate and consideration should be given to the board composition (including the Directors’ desires to become Chair) and the needs of the organisation at the time a new Chair is required.

Whichever recruitment method is selected, the board should be clear on the requirements, traits and temperament required from the Chair. I have written about the role of the Chair earlier, and that post covered the day-to-day and month-to-month tasks of a Chair. This post focuses more on the personality traits of great Chairs.

What to Look For

When considering a Chair from inside or outside the board, consider the following traits:

High EQ and IQ
When combined, emotional intelligence (EQ) and intellect (IQ) is a powerful combination. In my professional and board career, the best leaders I have worked with have high levels of both EQ and IQ. High emotional intelligence shows itself in many ways, primarily: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

EQ strongly comes in to play when needing to work with and through others to achieve outcomes, coaching and mentoring the CEO and other board members, and engaging with and communicating to stakeholders. To be a leader you need to be leading people, and people respond best to those with a healthy balance of emotional intelligence and raw intelligence.

In fact, most of the other traits in this list all stem from having a high EQ (backed up with the smarts to do the job).

Understand When to Engage
This is where EQ shows itself most prominently in board meetings. The Chair is an influential position. Those people who fill that role understand this and understand how their involvement in board conversations can influence outcomes and sway decisions and opinions.

As such, a great Chair knows when to sit back and when to engage (to either prompt a decision or move the conversation along). Rarely will a Chair need to assert their opinion or position in relation to a decision – a high performing board will usually come to form a position on an issue as a group (even if some people disagree with aspects of the decision).

As a side note, if your Chair regularly has to make a casting vote, this may be an indication of larger problems amongst the board members. A savvy Chair should know to address this issue too.

What you don’t want to see is a Chair frequently putting their opinion out there before anyone else has a chance to speak, disregarding other directors’ perspectives and view points, influencing outcomes, not letting everyone have their say, or not addressing ‘elephants in the room’.

Passion for the Organisation and/or Cause
All directors should have this trait. Even more so, the Chair. This is because they are usually the face of the organisation (in conjunction with the CEO) and will called upon to do additional work for the board and organisation. If you don’t have passion for the organisation and/or cause you will resent the time, energy, and effort required of you, leading to reduced performance of the board and organisation.

Champion Best Practice Corporate Governance
Underpinning a well-run organisation and board are effective corporate governance practices. Having a well-oiled corporate governance machine running frees up time and capacity for the board to work on strategy and organisational performance. The Chair must be a champion for implementing and following best practice corporate governance processes and practices.

Disregarding them because you’re a “volunteer board” or “the business is too small” is inexcusable. If you see this behaviour and hear these words from a potential Chair, I would strongly recommend not voting them in. Of course, you need the rest of the board to feel the same way about corporate governance, which sadly doesn’t always happen. This is a conversation for another day.

Have the Time (and are willing)
The additional tasks and requirements of a Chair means that they will need to invest more time into the board than the usually Director. The person wanting the Chair role understands this and has the capacity in their schedule to do the job well.

Some of the tasks that Chairs are more involved in include: board meeting agenda-setting, CEO coaching/mentoring, one-to-ones with board members, fundraising, and stakeholder/community relations and activities.

You want someone who has the time and the will to do these tasks and do them to the best of their ability.

Set the right Culture
Due to the influential position the Chair is in, and the added exposure they have to staff within the organisation, what they say and do and how they behave gets reflected on the board and through the business.

When vetting a Chair, try to understand that person’s core values and consider how they match with the organisation’s and the board’s values (A miss-match as a red flag). Ask about the behaviours they would accept and not accept on a board and in an organisation in relation to these values.

Final Words

Treat recruiting a Chair for your board – either from the board or outside the board – as you would recruiting any other Director: be clear on the traits, attitudes, and behaviours the board and organisation wants and needs from the Chair, interview, vet, and on-board as you would any new board member. It’s worth the time and energy up front to ensure you recruit a successful board Chair.

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