In one of my first posts I talked about a scenario in which a board chair suddenly had to step into an operational role and serve as the primary spokesperson for a charity in crisis. While this scenario is not likely to happen very often, it does point out how important it is that the board carefully select its chair because there is a lot more to being chair than just chairing meetings.
Often the chair is selected based on a limited set of factors:
- The person is willing to be chair or wants to be chair
- It is the person’s turn to be chair
- The person is good at running meetings
- The person has the respect of the board or is well liked by everyone
Selecting a new board chair
When selecting a chair, follow a carefully crafted process to ensure you end up with the right person in the role. Some boards never consider the issue until quite near the end of a chair’s term, and only then do they cast their eyes around to see who might be the next chair. When that is the case, the board does not have a proactive succession plan and they’ll have no choice but to work with the people they already have on the board. There might not be any good candidates because no thought was put into recruiting potential chairs. In a worst-case scenario, they would have to look outside the board to find a capable chair. This person would be coming into the position cold and this can’t help but strain the board’s effectiveness.
The role of chair is too important to leave it to such a passive approach. Every ministry should have a process in place to find and groom at least two people with the qualifications and characteristics to fulfill the chair’s responsibilities. I am a director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and at our recent board meeting we elected the next board chair who doesn’t actually take over until May 2013. This person now has a year to work into the new position while the current chair finishes up. I think that makes for a very smooth transition.
The Chair’s Responsibilities & Traits
As you look for potential board chairs, keep in mind the chair’s responsibilities and the resulting desirable traits:
- Spokesperson for the board when not in session
- The person should be well-spoken, have discretion, and be able to present the board’s views and positions without equivocation. Needs to be committed to the ministry’s strategic statements (values, vision, mission) and respected by both the board and staff
- Depending on your governance structure, may supervise the senior staff person
- Needs to be comfortable dealing with performance issues and keenly aware of the dividing line between board and staff affairs as defined by the board
- Helps the board adhere to its chosen governance model
- Needs to be an expert or at least very well-informed on the governance model used by the board
- Hosts or emcees at board events
- Should be articulate and personable
- Guides the board to a consensus by facilitating discussion
- Needs to be able to work effectively with others, open-minded, able to subordinate any personal agenda or desires for the ministry’s good, and not over-bearing
- Act as one of the organization’s two senior leaders: the chair leads the board and the senior staff person leads the staff. Although the senior staff person reports to the board and might be thought of as junior to the chair, in fact both positions report to the board and the board is supreme in overall leadership of the organization
- The two leaders have different responsibilities and need to be able to work together. It is vital that these leaders respect each other and are compatible. The board chair should be committed to working together with the senior staff person and the senior staff person should be consulted about the people being considered for chair
- Provide leadership and management at the staff level in times of crisis when the senior staff person is no longer available (eg., dies, sudden resignation, dismissal). The chair should be a decisive person who can quickly get to the crux of an issue.
Other ways to screen for a chair
The last time the CCCC board elected a chair, the board approved a policy for the selection criteria. It has some additional items to those above.
Critical to the role (Must have)
- knowledge of the governance model being used by the board;
- demonstrated leadership;
- ability to keep Board members focused;
- ability to plan a year in advance;
- no actual or perceived negative reputation;
- not currently in the first year of Board membership.
Important for the role (The chair must be strong in most of these traits, if not in each one)
- good communication skills;
- good people skills,
- a “presence”;
- time to commit to the responsibility;
- ideally in the second or third year of the first term of Board membership.
Desired for the role (Nice to have)
- stature within the Christian community;
- representation from a demographic minority.
Recruiting a chair
Recruiting for a board chair starts with recruiting for board members. If you want a chair from within, which is usually the only way to go, then you must recruit directors who are good candidates for board chair.
Vic Murray, a governance expert from BC, will be presenting two workshops at our CCCC Conference in September 2012 in Richmond. He has written about selecting a chair saying:
As far as improving their chances of choosing effective leaders, we’re still researching this question but logically, yes, there are a few things they can do,…you can improve the odds.
One: get a proper job description for the job of the chair and try to identify the qualifications you want in a chair and be more explicit about it.
Two: develop a succession plan. Make sure the next board chair gets good exposure to what’s required when they eventually take over.
Three: evaluate the board’s own performance, which a lot of boards don’t do. In the process of doing that, the group should be asking themselves who should be encouraged as a future chair.
And four: when you recruit regular, everyday board members, try to pick them with an eye to their future leadership potential.
Please be sure to contribute any good practices you’ve seen that have helped with selecting a great board chair.