Monday, June 27, 2011

The "chief" roles of a board chair

Who's accountable when nonprofit boards fail to live up to their governance responsibilities?

That question has been on my mind a lot as I write about, or read about, yet another governance failure. Obviously, there is no one, easy answer or one target for placing blame. There is one position within the board that I've not addressed in depth here, where significant responsibility must lie: the board chairperson.

A running joke in the nonprofit boardroom goes something like this: the only thing worse than missing a meeting and being given a committee chairmanship is missing that meeting and being elected board president. It's not a position to which everyone aspires, or for which everyone is qualified. Often, the person who assumes this role is not the member best prepared or most enthusiastic about leading his/her peers in governing. It's who's been around the longest or who's least likely to object - or who missed the meeting when the slate was selected. None of these scenarios sets up a board for the right leadership needed at the right time.

Chairing a nonprofit board requires a higher level of commitment (and more work, which is what sends many of us running for the hills - or curling up into little balls under the boardroom table - when nomination time rolls around). Without a strong president, though, without someone willing to champion the organization and push the group to focus on its governance work, the board is almost destined to flounder.

As I think about the board chairmanship, I envision five "chief" responsibilities:
  • Chief role model
  • Chief visionary
  • Chief agenda guardian
  • Chief accountability hawk
  • Chief partner
Chief role model. The president must demonstrate a commitment to the board's work and community leadership. He/she must model responsibility for all aspects of the job, particularly those emphasizing stewardship of the vision and mission. The board chairperson must always come prepared for the work of governance. He/she must also facilitate and expect board learning. This leader must create space in meetings reflection, information sharing, and discussion that expands the group's world view and understanding of the issues facing the organization.

Chief visionary. The chairperson sets the tone for the rest of the board. A board chairperson should be regularly asking members, individually and collectively, for examples of how they are advancing the mission. This person should be acknowledging successes and pushing to do more/better when they fall short. "How does this impact our mission?" and "How can we reach even further toward our vision?" should be the types of questions that the chief visionary poses constantly in the board's work.

Chief agenda guardian. The board president sets the agenda for the board, literally and figuratively. That means constructing meetings where the bulk of the time is spent discussing topics that advance the organization's mission. If you're delegating that task to the executive director, you are failing your peers (and the organization). Practically speaking, it may be a collaboration between president and ED; but defining the agenda and the direction it will take ultimately is a leadership decision - the president's leadership decision. Guarding the agenda also involves keeping conversations on track - bringing people back to the question at hand, reining in discussions that wander into management territory, stretching participants to think more expansively (and always focused on the vision and mission). Oh, and perhaps stating the obvious: the board president actually leads the meeting. It is a task not deferred to the ED or anyone else.

Chief accountability hawk. The chairperson should be absolutely clear about the board's accountability responsibilities and take every step possible to ensure that they are being addressed. This includes ensuring that the board is monitoring and communicating and otherwise focused on its legitimate accountability work. It also includes clarity about what is not covered under the board accountability umbrella. Fear of the unknown can derail an otherwise intelligent and capable board. A strong understanding of what board accountability looks like, reinforced by a confident president, can relieve unnecessary stress and facilitate focus where their attention should lie.

Chief partner. A strong working relationship between the board president and the executive director must be a leadership goal. Different personalities interact differently. Sometimes, the fit is less than great. But these two individuals together must work to create and protect an environment where the board is free to govern and to build its capacity to lead.

The rest of us serving on boards need to hold our presidents accountable for the kind of leadership that will inspire and push us to do our best and reach our full potential for our community. We need to recruit individuals with the capacity to move into this leadership position. We need to not settle for the person least likely to object, or select someone simply because she's been on the board the longest or "it's his turn." We need to rise to the level of accountability that our board chairperson expects of us. We need to expect the quality of leadership that we, and our organization, deserves.


Alice Korngold said...

Hi Debra, I love this post! You are amazing at involving all of us in your own highly dynamic and ambitious learning adventure. I try to keep up with every one of your posts!

I agree with all that you say in this post. Additional thoughts on the role of board chair: the importance of the board chair building and engaging a cadre of excellent board officers and committee chairs to participate in leadership; working with the CEO to consider who among the board members might be possible board chair successors, and preparing for leadership succession; and fully engaging all board members in discussions and other activities. This means that in board meetings, the chair often needs to hold back a bit and let other board members voice their thoughts before the chair weighs in, because once the board chair weighs in, that can suppress much variety in perspectives and points of view.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

This is sage advice, Alice, especially your counsel regarding the need for a strong leadership team - and the responsibility of creating and sustaining that team that falls with the chairperson. (No fair delegating primary responsibility to the ED!)

Your point about the president's role in finding ways to engage all board members is well taken as well.

Thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom and expertise!

Carlo Cuesta said...

This post is a keeper. Thank you for sharing. It makes me wonder what boards can do to cultivate this kind of leadership that you describe.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Good question, Carlo. I'm not sure I have an 'ultimate answer,' but I can offer some immediate feedback.

A board can create other opportunities to lead - to not only practice leadership but to grasp the impact of the responsibilities and rewards. We should be just as thoughtful in recruiting leaders to chair committees, task forces, and special projects as we are our officers. We set the tone with those leaders, outlining expectations, supporting efforts, and recognizing successes. We create a culture of not only accountability but also pride in service and accomplishments (whether they are unfettered successes or surviving amidst great odds). We build leaders by creating experiences for them to serve and providing the supportive environment where they have the best potential to succeed.

I'm not always a big fan of the a chair-elect kind of system. In theory, it makes sense. In practice, I've seen too often individuals who are so burned out by the time it's their 'turn' that they are almost destined to fail. Support, again, probably is the key - whether you actually have a designated successor-in-waiting or whether you offer meaningful ways to serve and develop while serving in other capacities (e.g., as a vice president or other officer).