This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.
Some of us embrace it. Many of us live in fear that "our time" will come. Others of us serve, somewhat reluctantly, because no one else will step up. What too few of us fully appreciate is the full scope of responsibility that a board president accepts when he/she agrees to serve.
Certainly, nonprofit governance is a collective leadership commitment - all members play a part in governing effectively. But the president carries a different, multi-layered commitment that many do not fully grasp.
Here are 10 ways that board presidents really lead:
1. They set the agenda. Literally. Effective presidents work with the executive director, in the context of the group's goals and governance responsibilities, to determine where the board's focus and energy will be spent during its limited time together. Will they govern, or will they wade through the quick sand of management issues? Will they explore big questions of vision and accountability, or will they passively listen to reports of events past? The president leads that call.
2. They use that agenda to lead productive meetings. Whether they keep their collective eye on the horizon, or drown in
management minutia, depends largely on the president's ability to keep members focused.
3. They look for ways to engage all members. The president ensures that everyone plays an active role in discussions, contributing openly to the debate and creative exploration of issues. They create an environment where it is not only safe to do so, it's expected.
4. They model commitment and leadership. A board president serves as a mirror to other members. When the president models leadership that is grounded in the vision and mission of the organization, fellow board members notice and respond. They rise to the president's level.
5. They hold members - and themselves - accountable. Commitment without follow-through is meaningless. Ensuring that those commitments are respected, and that the board lives up to its responsibilities, is the president's job. Not the ED's. The president's. (5A: The president, working with the executive and others as needed, provides members with the resources and support to succeed.)
6. They handle the tough discussions. When members fall short of
expectations - when their absences become problematic or they fail to
follow through with assigned responsibilities - the president addresses
the issue. The task is not delegated to the executive. Peers enforce
7. They make learning a priority. Effective board presidents know
that building board capacity - for governance, for understanding the
mission area and the agency's programs and services - requires ongoing
formal and informal learning opportunities. They query board members
about specific learning needs and work to address them in accessible
8. They facilitate ways for many members to lead. Effective presidents engage every board member in leading the work of the board, drawing on individual strengths and skills. They link members to leadership roles via committees, task forces, special assignments - meaningful work that shares responsibility for the board's work (and create a natural pipeline for identifying potential successors).
9. They model an effective partnership between the board and the executive. Stating the obvious: the CEO is more than an obedient foot soldier, there to do the bidding of the governing body that sits at the top of a nonprofit organizational chart. (Nor is that person the board's boss, dictating where its attention should be - but that's another post.) The relationship that a president develops with the ED not only helps make the former's term productive, it also models the kind of collaborative partnership that the board as a whole should seek with its chief executive.
10. They engage in board self-assessment. Effective presidents value regular individual and board-level self-assessment and create time in the group's work to engage in it. They understand assessment as a source of information and inspiration for performance enhancement. They recognize it as a chance to identify and address challenges before they become problems and barriers.
NOTE: For a more detailed exploration of this critical governance role, please visit my online board president resource.