High-functioning organizations have strong co-leadership between the executive director who oversees the management of the organization and the board of directors, which oversees the direction and vision of the organization. An effective board chair often makes the difference between a board that exercises strong co-leadership and one that cedes much of its power to its executive director.
Probably the most obvious role of the board chair is to preside at board meetings. An effective board chair ensures that meetings run on time and that conversations stay on topic and adhere to the agenda. He or she works to engage board members in the meetings, and makes sure that discussions are not dominated by a few strong voices.
To ensure that meetings run well and are addressing significant issues, effective board chairs co-author the meeting agendas. Too often, a busy board chair may simply sign-off on the agenda developed by the executive director. This may leave the chair inadequately prepared to present and discuss agenda items at the meeting, which can result in a board meeting led or dominated by the staff. While it’s appropriate to have the executive director and staff members provide their expertise and perspectives to the board, board meetings are the time for board discussion and deliberation and shouldn’t be staff focused or driven.
In the meeting agenda, an effective chair understands the function and responsibilities of the board and doesn’t include agenda items that are outside of the board’s role. The chair makes the connection between the organization’s broader plan and what the board needs to address at its meeting to make progress toward the organization’s annual goals. Within this framework, the chair thinks through the expected action on each agenda item. If there is no expected action, the item is better suited for a written report included with meeting materials rather than for an agenda item. If the item is something that is already authorized in the board’s planning documents e.g., a purchase or expense approved in the annual budget, the board has already exercised its responsibility regarding the topic and the item might be more appropriate in a staff report. Items on the agenda should require the board’s action — a vote, thoughtful discussion, directions for a next step; make good use of its expertise, and should be in-line with the board’s responsibilities. The board chair, in conjunction with the executive director, develops a meeting agenda that connects to the organization’s goals and to the board’s responsibilities.
Just as the chair works to engage board members in meeting discussions, he or she also works outside of meetings to encourage and strengthen board engagement. If members are absent from a meeting, a follow-up call or email from the board chair to update them on the meeting keeps them informed and connected to the work of the board. Touching base with committee chairs can keep committee work on-track and connected to the strategic goals of the organization. If some committees have difficulties with regular meetings, support and encouragement from the chair may push committees to get motivated and organized.
In addition to connecting with board members, the effective board chair builds a strong working relationship with the organization’s executive director. The board chair and the executive director are the point of connection between the staff and the board. Therefore, regular and open communication between these two leaders is necessary for a strong organization and good co-leadership. The chair can serve as a sounding board for the executive director for ideas and concerns about the organization. The executive director can provide issue and sector expertise to the board chair to develop a better understanding of the environment in which the organization operates.
Throughout this work, what most in the organization will notice about their board chair is the tone the person sets for the board. Does the chair approach the work positively with a clear vision for the organization? Does he or she engender respect for other board members and for staff? Are the organization’s challenges addressed proactively and strategically or are they brushed aside with unwarranted optimism that problems will simply take care of themselves? Are meetings run efficiently in ways that are considerate of the board and staff? Does the chair think strategically and act with the best interests of the organization in mind? Does the chair work to develop leadership within the board?
It takes time and focus to be an effective board chair: it’s not a job for a reluctant or distracted board member. An effective chair encourages an engaged board and connects the board’s work to the organization’s strategic goals. He or she understands the function and responsibilities of the board and makes sure that they are understood by the board. While doing so, he or she encourages and develops strong co-leadership between the board and the executive director to propel the organization forward in its work.