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Editor’s Note: Want to read more about the highs and lows of board chairs? Read this classic NPQ article, “The Best and Worst of Board Chairs.”
Your board chair might be so great that you want to clone her for the future. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Maybe your board chair is okay. You know—not bad, but not exactly good. More like mediocre.
Or…oh, gosh… Maybe your board chair is just plain bad.
In my experience, most board chairs are neither great nor bad. They are just okay. Mediocre. And certainly a mediocre board chair is better than a bad one. But how about raising your sights? How about aiming for a darn good board chair. Even a really great one?!
The goal is to pick the right board chair in the first place. Firing a board chair is even harder than firing a lousy board member. (But sometimes firing is necessary. If that’s the case, do it. Launch the process. See my book, Firing Lousy Board Members—and Helping the Others Succeed, coming from Charity Channel Press in February.)
Of course, to pick the right board chair in the first place, you have to have a good job description and a clear articulation of needed skills and behaviors.
Your organization—the CEO and the board members and the Governance Committee of the Board—have to commit to the hard work of getting a good board chair. The CEO participates in the Governance Committee work. (Make sure you check out the scope of work of the Governance Committee in my Free Download Library.)
The CEO has to be an effective leader and enabler—of both the board and its committees. In this case, the CEO has to be very effective partnering with and enabling the Governance Committee to do the tough work to recruit a good board chair. (Visit my Free Download Library and read the handout about enabling; you can get all the details in Strategic Fund Development, 3rd edition.)
So what’s the job of the board chair?
- First, the board chair serves as a facilitator. She chairs board meetings and manages the conversations. She summarizes what she is hearing in order to help the conversation go forward. She ensures equal voice. She facilitates the decision-making process through motions and voting.
- The board chair distinguishes between personal opinion (which is often irrelevant) and professional expertise. He helps the board members and the board as a group understand and perform accordingly.
- The board chair partners with the CEO to ensure that the board and its committees do not venture into management.
- Together, the board chair and CEO facilitate the proper relationship between the board and its committees. (And the CEO makes sure that his or her staff who work with board committees understand the distinctions between governance and management and effectively enable board members and committees.)
- Together, the board chair and CEO develop board meeting agendas.
- Together, the board chair and CEO identify committee chairs and assign each board member to the appropriate committee.
How is the board chair different than any other board member?
Mostly, there is no difference. The board chair has no more authority than any other board member. The board chair subscribes to the same limitations as any other board member. (Check out John Carver’s work about limitation policies.)
The board chair does not recruit or fire board members. As a member of the board, the board chair helps identify candidates, and the Governance Committee does the rest of the work. When it comes to poor performance by board members, the board chair often participates in conversations with the Governance Committee. The Governance Committee proceeds through all the various steps of performance feedback, enhancing attrition, or firing.
Who has the power?
The board does. Not the board chair. Not the CEO. Not any other individual. Governance is a group process. The group decides.
If your board members are so weak and ineffectual that they can’t pick the right board chair and demand appropriate behavior from the board chair…then your board deserves what it gets.
Your organization deserves a great board chair. Create a shared understanding of great, mediocre, and just plain bad. Then work together to get the best.