Sherpa? Shepherd? Conductor? Circus Master? Board Chair

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In November 2004, the Nonprofit Quarterly asked for nominations for “really good board chairs.” We selected seven very different people to interview. They shared their thoughts, experiences, and ideas about qualities they deemed essential to being an effective board chair, as well as stories of leadership challenges they faced and addressed. They offered advice based on their practical experience about what makes for a good relationship between the chair and the CEO as well as between the chair and other members of the board. In the pages that follow, we share with you the ideas they agreed upon and how those thoughts correspond to what is written about board chairmanship. Look to the following article for more on their inspiring individual stories and insights.

The Role of the Chair

Although there is not a lot written about “what makes a really good board chair,” the literature does converge on a few common themes. Cyril Houle, in his book, Governing Boards: Their Nurture, sums it up quite nicely when he says, “Chairmanship is the key element in the life of the board . . . bearing the greatest responsibility,” and the person holding that position should be an effective representative to the constituency, work harmoniously with the chief executive, and evoke cooperation from fellow board members. Interestingly, the people we talked with shared a similar list about what it took to be an effective board chair. Credibility, commitment, advocacy, and engagement emerged as essential elements of board leadership and requisite qualities needed to manage CEO/chair relationships, navigate rough terrain, and integrate diverse perspectives. They all agreed, coordinating participation requires the board chair to be respectful of people’s “time, intelligence, and their expertise.”

CEO/Chair Relationships

What was different about the board chair as opposed to the board member role, most mentioned, was the degree to which they had to build strong working relationships with their CEOs. Three key themes emerged. First, good relationships are built on the mutual trust and respect that comes from a shared value system, and it’s nice to know this exists before you sign up for the role. “You know, we might disagree about a transaction or a thing, but in the final analysis I think we share a real belief in what we are doing. We share a value system about how you work with people and how you treat people, and we share a sense of humor … It is such a basic relationship and it really demands trust. And I think trust is easier to build when you share a value system.”

This shared value system must also be considered when mentoring a succeeding board chair. It is important to make sure there is a good chemistry between the CEO and the chair-elect. “The executive director should concur that the board chair should be the board chair. A board chair that is named despite reasonable objection from the executive director—that’s a doomed relationship. On the other hand, a board chair who is the handmaiden of the executive director is not an effective board chair and can never stiffen his or her spine enough when a governance crisis or issue occurs.… We never know who’s going to be the chair when the crisis hits. So rolling the tape back, you always want a chair who is going to be able to handle the worst of times as well as the best of times. And that is something the executive director can and should contribute to.”

A second characteristic of strong board chair/CEO relationships was being able to “balance governance and management.” According to our interviewees, the lion’s share of responsibility in maintaining this balance rests with the board chair. Consider this comment: “I see the board chair as sort of a fulcrum, balancing governance and management, which always has to be in balance—otherwise things go wrong. And so that seems to be a burden more on the board side. I have always felt that, anyway. That it was our business as a board, to keep our nose out of management and on the other hand to make sure that we are doing our duty, our governance duty. That’s that balance that I think goes for any nonprofit, no matter how big or small.”

And finally, good board chair/CEO relationships require regular open and honest communication. As one board chair shared, “Communicate with the executive director on a regular basis—and that would be at least weekly. It doesn’t have to be face-to-face, but there should be communication that’s constant, and to some extent transparency in the management or at least in the overall workings of the agency and the board president. And that leads to the board president and executive director being on the same page, having shared vision both in terms of larger policy issues for the organization and specifically where the board is going or how to support the board in their efforts.” This may not always be easy, of course, and a number of those we interviewed told stories of the benefit of directness and the early identification of potential problems so that appropriate decision-making processes could be put in place.

Navigating Rough Terrain

Board confidence in its leadership was important when board chairs were called upon to navigate difficult terrain. People shared with us stories of difficult situations they encountered while serving as board chair—ranging from the firing of a long-term beloved executive director who had simply been unable to evolve in ways that effectively met organizational challenges, to shutting down an agency that had been in existence for 20 years, to mentoring a new CEO whose predecessor had tragically died of cancer at age 45, to discovering serious financial impropriety that jeopardized the long-term viability and credibility of the organization, to mediating “eternal” conflict among board members.

Two common themes emerged from each of the people interviewed about such situations. First, no situation is exactly like another and the board and the board chairs have to adjust their roles accordingly. And second, the board chair has a broad obligation that requires one to leave one’s personal agendas aside and respect the legitimacy of each person’s point of view. It was the ultimate responsibility of the chair to confront these issues head-on, not by being confrontational, but rather by being honest in assessing the situation and by “making an earnest effort to create a process that would lead to an informed decision.” As one board chair offered, “Ideally, the board chair would encourage the board to at least process it, take it on, understand that these are difficult things, and that it is important for organizations to make decisions.”

Dealing Well with Difference

For these exemplary board chairs, making an informed decision meant not only educating themselves about the issues, but also creating the “space” to listen and integrate diverse perspectives into the process. One person we spoke with differentiated the board chair role from that of a board member by describing the chair as a “student” and the members as “teachers.” She said that as a board member she sees herself as a teacher in that she brings her personal professional expertise to inform decision-making and advance mission-related goals and objectives, yet as a board chair she had a broader obligation to “learn” or to “do more homework in terms of understanding key themes or getting a better concept of the big picture.” She further noted that although she may describe the chair as a “student,” she also recognizes that the board chair has a broader obligation to not only learn from her fellow board members but also to interpret the learning, so she can orchestrate additional training opportunities and also show that she can help board members organize their contributions in a way that is “authentic and reflective.”

Checking One’s Own Behavior

The notion of reflective leadership is emphasized in Houle’s book. He argues that whenever a situation is getting out of hand, the first question the chair must ask is, “Am I part of the problem?” If the chair is (even inadvertently) escalating the situation, he/she must take appropriate action. If the chair is not part of the problem, he/she has a major responsibility to decide whether the board has the competence to resolve the issues, and if it does not, the chair must lead the way in seeking external help so that the board will have the information it needs to confront the challenges and reach conclusions about the best way to proceed.

Being a “specialist” or an “expert” whose ego gets in the way of “coming up with the right solution” does not inspire board strength; according to the people we talked to, integrating diverse perspectives is the challenge and “takes skill.” Holding the lead position among stewards is also sometimes humbling, particularly when personalities collide.

“One of the hardest things that I have had to learn how to do was to be able to sit at the table with someone I don’t like, working and dealing with that person, and come to a joint decision. What that actually means is that I have to acknowledge my personal bias against the person, and possibly agree to disagree, but still sit at the table no matter what so that we can come up with the right solution.”

According to these board chairs, coordinating participation among diverse constituents involves valuing and integrating multiple perspectives while helping all to be alert to conflicts of interest, creating a positive environment where all board members can contribute their expertise, and nurturing strong working relationships with board members. John Carver, in Boards that Make a Difference, concurs, asserting that to be an effective board chair “requires skilled handling of group processes, an ability to lead a group fairly but firmly, to confront and even welcome diversity, and to adhere to agreed upon rules for board conduct.”

Judith Millesen is an assistant professor of political science at Ohio University. She is also a principal in Carman and Millesen, a consulting group providing services to public and nonprofit organizations.