Ensuring Your Incoming Board Chair Does the Best Job Possible
By John Carver
1) Be the chief governance officer, not a part-time CEO.
The chairs job is to see to it that the board operates in line with its commitment and, when applicable, to make the board confront discrepancies between its behavior and its ideals. That is, the chairs proper focus is on making sure the board gets its job done. But if the chair tries to get between the board and its CEO, no matter how well intended, the CEO's role is weakened possibly to the point that it is no longer a real CEO.
The trick for the chair is to use his or her skills to influence the board to be self-responsible as much as possible, particularly to engage with the challenge of group leadership. After all, it is the board that has the authority, not the chair. It can and must delegate to the chair and to the CEO, but it cannot escape its accountability for the total. People get on boards because they are seen as good individual decision-makers, but once on the board they are immersed in group decision-making. That is an unfamiliar skill to most of us. A good chair can help the magic happen.
No matter how intelligent and well-meaning, no matter how experienced, board members tend to stray from the precise discipline the job demands. Almost constant self-evaluation against written rules is called for and can be achieved without time-consuming navel-gazing.
After all, meetings belong to the board, not to the chair and certainly not to the CEO. So many board meetings are not boards meetings at all, but CEOs meetings for the boards. The chair can help a board grapple with solving that typical board sin, thereby taking ownership of its job.
Board meetings dont necessarily need to be long and frequent. But they should not be hurried to the point of squelching dissent. Ive seen many businesslike board meetings at which there is no chance for substantive policy-level thought to take place. A chair can help bring out dissent, help make it part of the accepted board culture. For example, a chair can say, I dont think weve heard all sides of this yet. Maybe no one here has another view, but since there are other views, though not held by board members, we should hear them as well. Who can speak for another point of view?