How a Board Chair Leads Best

A board chair wields a lot of power, but the role demands that power be shared. One expert’s suggestion: First, get rid of team-building exercises.

The board chair may be the most peculiar leadership position in any organization. It’s arguably the most powerful role available, heading the group that sets direction and has firing power over the CEO. But the chair wields virtually no control over day-to-day operations and commands a group of people that is routinely replenished with new faces. And you can’t get too comfortable in the job, since you’ll eventually be termed out as well. You’re the boss. But you’re not.

Leaders have to shift away from defining team norms and building trust.

So it’s no surprise that board chairs themselves are often at sea about what their job is, and how to do it. A 2016 study by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management found that half of nonprofit board chairs had no leadership training, and that nearly 80 percent said they sometimes or often feel frustrated in their role.

The nature of the board-chair role will always make it something of a challenge. But that doesn’t mean the chair lacks real opportunities to lead. In Harvard Business Review’s “How to Be a Good Board Chair,” INSEAD business professor Stanislav Shekshnia reports on the results of a study of a few hundred chairs, board members, and other stakeholders to better define success in the role. Much of the findings boil down to old-fashioned professionalism—poise, attentiveness, preparation, not filling the agenda with snoozy and irrelevant material, and so forth. But in one case Shekshnia identifies a novel and valuable way to approach the job.

The first step, Shekshnia argues, is to get out of the mindset that the board-chair job in any way resembles a traditional leadership role. “To be effective, chairs must recognize that they are not commanders but facilitators,” he writes. “Their role is to create the conditions under which the directors can have productive group discussions.”

However, that facilitation doesn’t involve trying to create a sense of community with a board the same way you might with a staff, he argues. Board members won’t be around for as long as the average staffer, and only see each other a few times a year. And the typical board member’s commitments to other jobs (and boards) is so broad that such gestures toward unity will likely be only moderately effective anyhow.

So instead, Shekshnia prescribes a task-oriented mentality, not a team-building one. That’s because boards aren’t traditional teams; they are gatherings of “experts in a temporary group to solve problems they may be encountering for the first and only time,” he writes. “To enable it, leaders have to shift away from defining team norms and building trust, and focus on quickly scoping, structuring, and sorting the collaborative work.”

For any volunteer leader who’s had it up to here with trust falls, hot-coal-walking, and other icebreaking/teambuilding shenanigans and just wants to get to work, a line like that is a cool breeze on a summer’s day. But it does make the board chair’s job more time consuming: The leaders quoted in the piece talk about the importance of one-on-one interaction with every board member, before meetings to make sure they’re up to speed on the issues, and during the meetings to make sure they’re engaged. One board chair said he makes a point to get a general gloss on where the board stands on an agenda item before the meeting, and will raise the issue himself if the board member won’t. This “often triggers a direct contribution,” Shekshnia writes.

Well, of course it does—nobody wants to be caught napping for fear the teacher will call on them. And the approach will test a chair’s people-person skills: Done wrong, it can come off as paternalistic. But done right, it can highlight one critical and peculiar element of the board chair’s job: Though you’re the person in charge, what you’re in charge of is making sure everybody feels like they’re in charge.

That distributed-leadership approach is one that Judy Freiwerth of Nonprofit Solutions Associates recommended in 2016 in light of that report on board disengagement. “The traditional ‘heroic’ model of leadership is for the board chair to hold all of the leadership responsibility as one individual,” she told me. “Research suggests that shared leadership produces higher quality governance decisions and should be considered by boards.”

If you’re not sure you’re distributing leadership well enough, Shekshnia offers a useful metric: A successful board chair, he suggests, takes up no more than 10 percent of the airtime during a board meeting. And in that, as in most things involving board chairs, there’s another irony: It’ll take a lot of time and a lot of conversations to make it look like you’re not the center of attention.

What makes for a successful board chair, in your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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