What does it take to be a good board chair? What skill set do you need and who do you partner with to fulfill the Vision & Mission of your association?
The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) provide training sessions for Chief Elected Officers (board chairs) and Chief Staff officers (CEO, Executive Director, President) outlining what a successful chair and executive director’s relationship should look like to move the association forward (I will use the term Chair and Executive Director to describe the leadership positions within an association).
Over the years, I have attended many of these sessions with my board leaders. Each time, I come away with a gem of knowledge that helps me and the board chair work more effectively together to advance the vision and mission of our association.
For me, the best thing about these training sessions is the one-on-one, uninterrupted time spent talking with the board chair. We discuss where we are today and where we want to take the association in the future. Learning their leadership style is very valuable. Being able to focus on these discussions gives both the chair and your executive director confidence that you are working as a team to advance the strategic plan.
For example: I attended an ASAE hosted a session on Exceptional Boards, Strengthening the Governance Team with one of my association management company (AMC) clients. The focus of the session keyed in on the partnership between the board chair and the executive director. A strong relationship is instrumental to an associations’ success. The session homed in on the chair’s role and what an effective board chair’s duties look like.
One great resource shared during the session was The Five Tasks of Effective Board Chairs written by Mark Engle, FASAE, CAE and Thomas Dolan, FASAE, CAE. I found it very helpful in defining the board chair’s role and how they must work together to foster effective board meetings and a well-run association. The five tasks listed in the article are led, facilitate, participate, partner, and protect.
If your board has chosen wisely, the chair of the board will be that big picture thinker working the strategic plan to fulfill the vision & mission of your association. They are also instrumental to the operation and effectiveness of the board. They lead the onboarding of new board members and set expectations for the board culture. Refer to the following article for tips on becoming a good board leader; this article shares some good examples of what to include in an onboarding session. They can set expectations for meetings and the participation at the board level. Your board members are considered subject matter experts (SME) in their own way and the chair needs to tap into those skills by making sure they are heard from during meetings.
Read my colleague’s article on staying organized as an association leader.
The chair is responsible for creating the agenda for the board meetings in conjunction with the executive director. Setting the agenda and tying it back to the strategic plan is crucial in making sure the meeting stays on track. The chair needs to be able to rein in the discussion if it is not on task, this is a skill that not everyone has. As mentioned before, the board is your SME and needs to be heard during meetings. An effective chair will make sure the room is balanced and board members are heard.
During the “Exceptional Boards” training session, the one message that rang out loud and clear for me was that the board chair always needed to be well prepared for meetings. They don’t have to have all the answers, but they must know how to arrive at the answers. The inclusion of others’ perspectives is important, and the board chair should share their opinion last to avoid group think mentality that often comes with statements from positions of authority. Hear from ALL of your board and then weigh in with your thoughts.
For one of the exercises during the training, the facilitators used a software that allowed members in the meeting to share their ideas anonymously. This allowed people to share without fear of being judged for saying something that goes against the grain of the board. The program used was Lucidspark. There are other programs like this that allow anonymous idea sharing. You would need to determine whether your board would benefit from this type of idea sharing/creation.
The whole Exceptional Boards session was designed to create/form/strengthen the partnership that exists between the board chair & the executive director. You will benefit from having open dialogue with each other and supporting the work each does. The chair is also responsible for evaluating the executive director, so clear communication is essential between these two positions.
Create that environment around the board room table/Zoom call that allows members of the board to trust that the board table is a safe space. As a leader, set expectations around how the association will function and how the board will work. Creating the safe space for this is the job of the board chair. Since we have had to go virtual for most of our meetings, it is crucial to set the expectations early on and communicate the board’s desire for open and honest dialogue on issues that affect the organization.
A lot goes into being a good board chair and many articles & books have been written on the subject. The key that I have taken away from my training sessions and all that I have read on the subject is that having open, honest, and timely dialogue between chair, board, and staff leader is crucial to the success of your association.
“Doing it right” means asking lots of questions, listening, and trusting in the people around you with integrity & honesty.
For more information on succeeding as a board member, read my colleague’s article, “Ready to Be a Successful Board Leader?”