Board chairs help set an association’s strategic vision, but they also manage the board itself. When chairs think like managers, not just stewards, they can have a profound impact on the board’s health.
There’s a problem with some of the words we use to describe board chairs. The post is often described as an “honor,” which it is, but the term gives the impression that being a chair is an award—and that the tenure is a victory lap. It’s also called a “role,” which emphasizes how a chair relates to the staff executive. But the word diminishes what being a board chair actually is, or ought to be: a job.
Of course, it’s not a job in a traditional sense. Even if you do it well, you’ll likely have to leave it after a year or two, and it’s not (usually) compensated. But thinking of the board chair position as a job might help stress the point that chairs have management tasks to take care of just like any other kind of leader. It’s typically said that staff leaders deal with operational, day-to-day matters while boards handle strategy, but board chairs have day-to-day responsibilities too when it comes to ensuring the board’s long-term health.
In “How to Be a Super Board Chair,” published last month in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, nonprofit leaders Jon Huggett and Mark Zitter get into what that job entails, particularly when it comes to managing other board members. The chair is the head of a “decision-making team,” they explain, and much of their advice is of the good-governance variety: set clear directions, run meetings well, be a good listener, be a good partner to the staff leader, get plenty of feedback. But they also spotlight two underappreciated job tasks for board chairs.
A buttoned-down process increases the chances of finding and attracting good board candidates.
One is a short-term task, bluntly stated: “Pare deadwood.” Just about every board has its share of less-engaged or disengaged members, and many simply let such situations go; short of serial absences that trigger removal clauses in the bylaws, many chairs avoid confrontation on the matter. Huggett and Zitter demand more from a chair and suggest that they lead assessments just like any boss would: Have written expectations of board members and follow up to see if they’re meeting them. Those who don’t, Huggett and Zitter write, should be required to either step up or resign. Either way, the governance team becomes more focused.
The second underappreciated task is to think strategically about the future of the board, not just the future of the organization. That includes succession planning for the board and its committees, and Huggett and Zitter encourage board chairs to think about good fits that go beyond how long candidates have served as committee members or in other volunteer positions. “The ability to lead a board is paramount,” they write. “Experience on that board is secondary.” (See the point about deadwood above.)
But beyond simply sorting out the question of who’s going to serve as treasurer next year, board chairs need to lead on the question of what the board will look like in the years to come. Succession planning for new and emerging board members who think strategically requires some proactive searching; that’s especially true if the board is working to diversify itself. Whether you hire somebody to assist with that or take it on yourself, Huggett and Zitter stress that it should be treated professionally.
That’s just good governance, but it also has a multiplier effect: When you show that you think succession planning is important, the high-quality board candidates you want will be more likely to emerge. “A buttoned-down process increases the chances of finding and attracting good candidates because it creates a first-class impression of the organization,” they write.
Luckily, board chairs have a CEO’s support to lean on. After all, the staff leader is just as invested as the chair in having good board members, and though CEOs have to be mindful of overstepping their bounds, they’re valuable sources of support and information. “Both the chair and the executive director should work to design the relationship in a way that works well for the organization and sets up the executive director for maximum success,” Huggett and Zitter write.
That kind of symbiosis doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of board chairs recognizing the responsibility they’ve been given—and getting to work.