During one of our BoardPro webinars, we discussed the dynamics of a boardroom and what can make a meeting run smoothly and effectively. Although it was agreed upon that every member of the Board needed to be aware of their own personal contribution and involvement, the first step to ensuring an effective meeting is to have an effective, high-performing chairperson.
"We think about the Chair a lot as the person who is the one that is driving the Board, and I think we need to be aware that we do sometimes have Chairs who are not as effective as we might like," says Lynda Carroll, the CEO of Align Group. But although this is the reality of some Boards, we also understand that "People don't start out as good Chairs, or good directors, or good leaders. That stuff grows over time,” explains SaaS Board Advisor specialist Martin Oxley. “None of us were born good leaders."
With this in mind, to help accelerate the learning curve, BoardPro has assembled a list of some of the most important technical and soft skills that are important for all Board members, but especially important as Chair.
Although being an expert in the industry shouldn’t be the determining factor in selecting the Chair of the Board, it is definitely a preferable asset for the position. This industry knowledge and insight helps the Chair make more informed decisions and equips directors with a more profound knowledge of the opportunities and challenges that the industry and company face. It also allows for a greater understanding of the regulatory environment and key industry players that the Board should note.
A leader's network is essential for all businesses, and the Chair is no exception. It is with this network and the ability to network that the Chair can effectively lead the organisation whilst bringing in industry knowledge and opportunities. This network is, therefore, beneficial as it provides another means to satisfy an objective, strengthen business connections and allow for fresh perspectives and ideas to enter the organisation.
Being aligned with the organisation
Understanding the organisation's mission, vision and core values for all directors is necessary for the smooth running of the Board. This undoubtedly includes the Chair. As a part of good corporate governance, the organisational alignment allows the Chair to lead the meetings, ensuring each member of the Board (and thus the organisation) shares a common goal for the company's success. Starting with the Chair, ensuring organisational alignment means facilitating members to work together in achieving common goals whilst communicating transparently and keeping each other accountable.
Have an understanding of the broader organisational impacts
Not only should the Chair understand the mission and regulations of the organisation, but they should also understand the organisation on a deeper level. For example, why is the organisation doing what they do? How does it impact the stakeholders? What is their place in the market?
These are just a few questions that the Chair needs to get very familiar with to understand the broader implications of their decisions and the weight it carries beyond the confines of the boardroom.
The Chair has a multitude of tasks that they must ensure, such as providing leadership, providing support and ensuring the Board runs appropriately. For that reason, they can't do everything alone. They must be able to delegate to other members of the Board, allowing them to focus on strategy, assessing risks and setting a high level of corporate governance standards – this means objectivity and accountability. The Chair should lead and not impose their opinion on the other directors on the Board and should always bear the bigger picture and objective in mind.
Forward planning for the directors and organisation
As Chair, there is a certain level of forward thinking and planning required that can only be implemented within the Board and organisation if they take the time to speak to directors in advance to understand their perspectives.
Speaking on the character of the Chairperson, "One of the things that I've found that Chairs have told me, is really effective," explains Co-founder of Conscious Governance, Director and Advisor Steve Bowman. "They actually have a conversation each year, one-on-one, with each of the directors about what they would personally like to get out of the next 12 months of service on this Board. So you start to understand from the individual where they are coming from."
Consider succession planning across the Board
A good succession plan benefits a board because it allows one to take a step back and think about how future plans will align for the organisation. The departure of a director can cause instability and turbulence, so succession planning is necessary.
Although succession planning is the responsibility of the whole Board, as the leader, the Chair needs to ensure the plan's accomplishment. They are responsible for enforcing, planning, foreseeing and agreeing upon the plan.
The Chairperson is responsible for ensuring that decisions are taken during meetings. These decisions could define the organisation's future for the years to come. Therefore, handling the meeting and managing the directors is crucial.
Among the Chair's many responsibilities, they must ensure that the meeting agenda is carried out, that every director's opinions are equally heard and explained, and that a consensus is agreed upon. With this, it is important that the Chair is well organised and prepares for the company meetings well in advance.
"The Chair should see themselves as an equal partner and not overdo their contribution or their steering decisions to what they want," says Board Chair, Director and Consultant Mele Wendt. For this reason, one of the most important soft skills a Chair could have is to listen. They must ensure everyone on the Board has an equal chance to contribute to the discussion and decision-making.
Connecting with people
Networking is essential as it allows new connections to be surveyed and allied to the organisation. The ability to make new friends and industry acquaintances (and potentially new business partners) is invaluable to have as a Chair. In this way, there is potential to share knowledge between experts in the field and learn more about the opportunities in the market that can benefit the organisation.
Communication from the Chair is key. "If we are going to have a trustworthy relationship, the first thing we need is credibility," says Carroll. "We do introductions, we basically talk about what we are bringing to the table. So everyone in the room understands the value of each person." Good communication builds trust, enhances decision-making, builds a better team synergy and improves branding. The Chair should guide the Board in this aspect so that it integrates into a core value, which in turn helps improve and protect the brand's reputation.
Self Awareness and empathy
Chairs should be able to reflect on themselves and their actions, thoughts and emotions. They need to understand themselves better to lead the Board in an open-minded and objective way, so they don't, for example, push their agenda onto the other board members.
They should also be empathetic and try to understand the opinions of those working with them. "The sensitivity of the Chair to ask the room for their opinion and what their concerns are. And giving them the right to disagree and the right to hear worries about this, if you've got them. And it would be inappropriate if you didn't hear these worries," says Oxley. The Chair must do their job by hearing the opinion of others and be approachable - open to new ideas and suggestions.
"The Chair is the facilitator, not the boss," echoes Wendt. They need to lead without dominating. This is a crucial part of the Chair’s job, and it is stressed time and time again. They need to be influencing but not dominating.
Punctual and reliable
Punctuality shows respect for the other team members, that the job is taken seriously, that it upholds productivity, and reliability that signifies that deadlines are being cared for.
In many environments, punctuality is synonymous with professionalism. It is also synonymous with reliability. The Chair should set an example for the Board, and the Board should set an example for the rest of the organisation.
Good conflict management
Conflicts may arise through poor communication, lack of role clarity, and a desire for control. These happen in any environment and are not necessarily negative but something that needs to be worked through.
"There is good conflict and good conflict. And that good conflict is excellent, and what does that look like compared to those conflicts that aren't so beneficial" says Carroll. What comes after is how the Chairperson manages the conflict. Conflict can sometimes give way to new ideas, new ways of looking at old problems and a new insight into any risk or opportunities present.
The Chair should make it clear to directors that their concerns are all opened and invited to discuss. Open communication is critical, and an openness to new insights should be welcomed at all times. Directors should feel comfortable expressing themselves and sharing their questions or concerns without judgement.
Understanding board dynamics
Similarly to self-awareness and empathy, the Chair should be sensitive to the dynamics of the Board.
This means being open, observant and instinctual about the other directors and how to handle them. The Chair should also keep an eye out for how the different directors interact with each other and mitigate any situation that arises. By understanding board dynamics, the Chair could maximise the contribution of all board members, thus increasing the Board's effectiveness.
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