• Diane Tilstra

    This is a timely article for me. It confirms my basic suspicions about the current board chair of a Foundation that I serve. In board meetings, this chairperson has “dictated” that the board meetings will only last for one hour (regardless of the amount of work needed to be done), has a penchant for chastizing me if I speak too long in front of the members of the board in a rude, condescending way. It sends a definite message to other board members that they, too, will sustain his wrath if they say anything. So what do we have? A dictator and siilent minions. No one steps up to any plate except one board member who is loud and antagonistic which also adds to the dysfunctionality. I inherited the group and I am working to bring new members on to the board but I am very concerned about what will happen to new board members who experience the dictatorship.

  • chairwoman

    This article is outstanding in that so little is written about the true impact of the Chair’s role and the capacity to build or stifle an organisation. The role is so often underutilised, with people who do not see themselves as “leaders” but someone to chair a monthly meeting! There’s the thought leadership and coaching, pushing, exploring and overall embrace of the agency’s mission that needs to be paramount. Board members act in accordance with the level of energy the Chair provides. Good ones get fed up and leave, and the result is a moribund organisation.
    As Diane’s experience shows, the dictatorial, nasty Chair is a tragedy – combined with a Board that lets it happen. Elevating the quality of leadership – modelling and demonstrating how satisfying and influential (in a good way) the role can be may be one way to attract higher calibre leaders. As for me I stopped a political career because of the impact I could make in the NFP sector was so much more significant and direct, than within a largely dysfunctional political system.
    I love being a Board chair, and the ability to collaborate, partner, and bring resources to bear on entrenched disadvantage.

    But what if I am not what I think I am? I’ll use this article to let the Board evaluate my performance and gain some feedback from the CEO. I’m prepared to get out of the way if I need to. More should do the same.

  • Garth Nowland-Foreman

    I actually think we expect too much of our chairs. We expect them to be great facilitators of group dynamics; the most experienced people around the organisation, with much to contribute on the content of discussions and decisions; quiet, behind the scenes supporters and encouragers of our managers; persuasive public speakers and advocates for our organisations; great negotiators; figure-heads with great ‘mana’ (prestige and respect); people with plenty of time on their hands. As a result we also make the gap in expectations between mere mortal board members and chairs too great a leap for many to contemplate. And did you notice that some of these expectations, if not contradictory, are pretty uncommon combinations in mere mortals?

    For this reason, I suspect this kind of research could be more a part of the problem than the solution. I got exhausted just reading the list of golden qualities we expect in goo Chairs! More and more I have been thinking we need to break the Chair role into two or many more parts and find people who are NATURAL fits for the various roles rather than trying to squeeze ordinary folk into our super hero templates for chairs. For example, Convenor (for the person could at bringing the best out of a group discussion), Patron (for the high prestige or well connected individual that can publically, or behind the scenes, lend their reputation to our cause), Board Member Emeritus (for the organisational ‘elder’ or experienced person with lots of content knowledge and wisdom to contribute – in New Zealand we might call them ‘Kaumatua’), etc etc etc.

    This is just a first draft of my idea, and I am not wedded to any particular titles or roles, but I am attracted to the idea of lets break it down, and then it becomes many jobs that all of us can do, rather than a thankless job we are always on the search for a super hero to step into. It might also lead us away from too readily blaming the individual (most people do the best they can with the resources they have at the time), and towards fixing the system that keeps leading to the same problems time after time…

  • michael

    Garth, we already use that kind of model in our work with Boards. For example, meeting facilitation skills are critical to good governance. But if a Board Prez lacks this competency, it’s perfectly legit for them to name a Facilitator for meetings.

  • Carolyn Baker

    I very much enjoyed reading this article. I think the study on Board Chairs is most informatative in that it reveals to non-profits the behavior that is characteristic of effective Board Chairs. Much can be learned from this article, and it can be used as a guide for those comtemplating becoming Board Chairs.