Reflections (Thus Far) on Thriving as a Board Chair

by , December 9, 2014

What does it take to thrive as a board chair? In this post, CompassPoint governance consultant Marla Cornelius shares key takeaways from one of our newest programs, Thriving as a Board Chair. This cohort based learning experience for board chairs blends CompassPoint’s governance content, expert facilitation, and peer learning. Do her reflections resonate with your board experience?


In the blog post “The Impact of Board Chairs” I talked about (among other things) how important it is for board chairs to adopt a learner’s mindset and connect with other chairs to discuss the challenges that come with this important—but difficult—job. Inspired by this belief and our own experiences as board chairs, my colleague Adriana Rocha and I have been facilitating a five-month-long leadership development series just for board chairs called Thriving as a Board Chair.

We launched the series in August and quickly filled the seats with a terrific group of board chairs from diverse backgrounds. In addition to Adriana and me, there are participants representing all sectors (government, public, private) and stages of career—from emerging leaders to retirees. We are half-way through the series and as I reflect on what we’ve covered thus far, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned.

Ground Rules and Goals to Steer Discussion

We started the first session by co-creating a set of ground rules that would guide and support our conversations in the months to come:

  • Observe confidentiality
  • Assume good intent
  • Step back; take turns verbally and actively participating
  • Fully engage in the sessions
  • Share your experiences and opinions honestly
  • Listen deeply
It feels vulnerable to step into any leadership position, but especially one that paradoxically comes with big demands and high stakes, yet, little to no orientation, training, and support.

Since they’re not that different from other agreements typically listed at the beginning of group processes, I suspect you won’t find them particularly enlightening at first glance. But given the diverse composition of this group I think that they are in fact interesting. They reveal a hunger to talk—and I mean really talk—openly and candidly about what it means to be a board chair. It can be scary to ask questions about things we’re “supposed to know” and scarier still to admit when we feel stuck or unsure. It feels vulnerable to step into any leadership position, but especially one that paradoxically comes with big demands and high stakes, yet, little to no orientation, training, and support.

Next, we generated a list of topics that we wanted to discuss in future sessions, then used a crowdsourcing process to see which rose to the top. Here are the four topics that were ultimately selected by the group:

  1. Board Meeting Agendas
  2. The Board Chair’s Role between Board Meetings
  3. The Board’s Role in Fundraising
  4. Executive Director Performance Evaluations

We’ve tackled the first two (and discuss them below). The latter two discussions are still to come.

Board Meeting Agendas Shape What Will Happen

“What’s on the board agenda gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what gets decided. Or not decided. And that our boards succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one board meeting at a time.” -- Adaptation of Susan Scott’s quote from Fierce Conversations

In this session we talked about a seemingly mundane yet critical task—developing board meeting agendas. We used the Governance as Leadership framework by Chait, Ryan, and Taylor to design conversations that focus the work of the board on governance, not micromanagement. Using an inquiry-based agenda format, we redesigned dissatisfying meetings with an eye towards a better use of board time, space to grapple with real issues, and time for candid conversations that engage the collective intelligence, diverse perspectives, and passion around the table.

As I write this post, I’m reminded of Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations, who says, “Remember that what gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won't happen. And that we succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time.”

While Scott was not referring to board conversations per se, while I read this quote the voice in my head paraphrases her words, “What’s on the board agenda gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what gets decided. Or not decided. And that our boards succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one board meeting at a time.” It’s a good orientation to keep in mind. I’ve never met Susan Scott, but I suspect she would agree.

The Importance of the Board Chair’s Role between Board Meetings

“A good chair runs a good meeting. A great chair runs between meetings.” -- Jeanne Bell, CompassPoint

In a conversation a while back with CompassPoint’s CEO Jeanne Bell, she said casually, “A good chair runs a good meeting. A great chair runs between meetings.” I’ve been quoting her ever since. When I shared this with the group, it immediately resonated with them too and this notion became the basis for our second session.

In selecting this topic, we thought about the importance of staying connected between board meetings so that they don’t feel like a string of disjointed conversations unmoored from the day-to-day issues facing the organization. We recognized that one aspect of being a board chair is to play the role of “bridger” by ensuring that there are practices and structures in place to support the work and board members between meetings. Committees, task forces, and board events planned with an eye towards cohesion make a board member’s experience feel purposeful and curated not randomly thrown together like open-mic night. In addition to formal structures, little efforts go a long way towards this end. For example, chairs might consider:

  • Sending personal emails to board members reminding them of upcoming events and action items.
  • Occasional phone calls throughout the year asking board members for ideas and feedback. This will increase their engagement by showing that their opinions matter.
  • Personalized email invitations to organizational events to increase the likelihood that members will attend. Better still, after the event, ask a board member to write a short note recapping the experience for those who couldn’t make it or host a brown bag lunch on what they learned.

Join Us for the Next Thriving as a Board Chair Series

There are two more sessions planned before the end of the current series: The Board’s Role in Fundraising and Executive Director Performance Evaluations. I look forward to sharing my reflections on these conversations in a future post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from other board chairs, past and present: How do you navigate challenges? Stay inspired? And, what would have been on your list of topics to discuss with other chairs?

If you currently serve as a board chair, join my colleague Adriana Rocha and me for the next series of Thriving as a Board Chair: A Peer-Learning Program beginning in February 2015. In this five-month learning experience, you’ll have an opportunity to select the topics that matter most to you and then engage with us and other board chairs in fun, candid, and courageous conversations about this rewarding and challenging position.


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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