The Impact of Board Chairs

by , May 27, 2014

In this blog, CompassPoint governance consultant Marla Cornelius emphasizes that the board chair’s most important role is not just knowing what to “do” to manage the organization’s board, but more importantly how to “be” a facilitator and lever of organizational change. 

The way board chairs play their roles has considerable impact on executive directors, their boards as a whole, and the organizations they serve.

That’s a daunting proposition for most of us who have ever stepped into this volunteer leadership position. I have played this role a few times over the years—to lesser and greater effect, I am sure. At CompassPoint, I also work with nonprofit leaders who are board chairs themselves or work closely with them. Many of the conversations I have with those leaders center on the responsibilities of the role: how to set agendas, facilitate meetings, represent the organization, and coordinate board activities, for instance.  As important as these duties are in helping board chairs understand what to do, they offer little assistance in helping them understand how to be. Job responsibilities help board chairs understand what to do. Leadership characteristics help board chairs understand how to be. More importantly, if we reduce the role of board chairs to a list of duties, how do we know what difference the role of board chair can make?

The exceptional chair is the exception

In a study by Harrison and Murray, over 80% of respondents said that less than one third of the board chairs they worked with were exceptional. In this paper, what struck me most wasn’t the list of effective board chair characteristics—leadership qualities we would expect such as proactive, inspirational, trusting, committed, open, and passionate—it was that exceptional board chairs were seen as highly skilled at “using the chair role to clarify the work of the board and the issues it faces.” Rather than using the position for personal satisfaction or to advance their careers (though those might be valuable by-products of a chair experience), they used the role as a lever to facilitate organizational change.

Levels of impact

Board chairs that are able to use their roles in this way were found to have an impact on the following three levels:

Impact on the executive director

Effective chairs establish a strong leadership partnership with the executive director, share accountability for the organization’s success, and serve as a valuable sounding board for the executive director’s ideas and concerns.

What’s the impact? Chairs that provide mentorship increase the confidence and morale of executive directors. Executive directors who have a powerful partnership with their chairs report making better decisions as a result.

Impact on the board as a whole

Effective chairs promote candid discussions of complex issues that encourage dissenting opinions to be voiced. They understand that disagreement does not mean disloyalty or disrespect. Board chairs that foster this culture are not afraid to question complex, controversial, or ambiguous matters. They encourage us to look at issues from all sides. Inviting inquiry, dialogue, and debate increases the quality of the outcome and makes board service more interesting and gratifying for everyone.

What’s the impact? As a result, the board is able to focus more on big picture issues and produce clearer plans. Board members become more engaged and committed, and unwanted turnover of board members is reduced.

Impact on the organization

Effective board chairs have deep curiosity about the organization’s strategy. Genuinely interested in the strategic questions facing the organization, a chair is more likely to speak passionately about the mission, actively seek partnerships, and engage stakeholders. Through a process of inquiry, these leaders are more able to see multiple perspectives and ultimately help shape where the organization needs to go.

What’s the impact? Effective board chair behavior contributes to an organization’s overall health. Those working with effective chairs found that their participation improved relationships with partners, influenced funding in a positive way, clarified direction for the organization, and improved staff morale.

Leadership development for board chairs

In sum, board chairs will better serve their organizations when they have a personal leadership vision for how to use the role as a powerful instrument of change for the organizations they are passionate about. They will also feel more personal satisfaction and fulfillment, which can only strengthen their impact and inspire those around them.

Because the chair role has such potential (and can be so very challenging!) it’s important that board chairs not go it alone. Among the best ways to strengthen leadership skills is to adopt a learner’s mindset and engage in a leadership development process with others who are experiencing similar challenges. 

If you are currently serving as a board chair, I hope you will join my colleague Adriana Rocha and me for a new program we are offering just for board chairs: Thriving as a Board Chair: An Exclusive Peer-Learning Program. In this five-month learning experience, we’ll grapple with these questions of effectiveness and impact. We’ll have candid and courageous conversations about how we think we are doing and what support we need to thrive. We’re excited to share our experiences as board chairs and learn from others also interested in figuring out how best to use our positions to make a difference.

Marla is a senior project director at CompassPoint and board chair at DataCenter: A Research Justice Organization. Adriana Rocha is practice director at CompassPoint and board chair at Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT).

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Read Marla’s past blogs:

Perspectives on the Role and Impact of Chairs of Nonprofit Organization Boards of Directors, Yvonne D. Harrison, PhD, University at Albany, SUNY and Vic Murray, PhD, University of Victoria. October 17,2010.

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