What do some consider a fate worse than death? Becoming chair of the board you serve on. And, yes, I do prefer the title of “chair” over “president”, as president gives people the sense that this position has more power than it truly does or should. (This position has no veto power or the power or the authority to hand down executive orders or to give pardons, etc.). The first thing I generally tell people when having a discussion about the position of chair/president is that this position has no more power than any other board member; it just has more work and responsibility. That said, it is still the most important position on a board, and the person filling that position can, in turn, make or break a board—meaning it can take a well-functioning board and make it a higher functioning board, or it can turn it into a dysfunctional board.
Why, then, does such a pivotal position get filled with so little attention by the rest of the board? While I joke when talking to boards about how chairs get selected—whoever left the room at the wrong time or whose arm was most easily twisted—sadly, it isn’t a joke. Too many people laugh in a way that says, “I’m laughing not because what you said was funny but because I’m embarrassed that it hit too close to the truth.” While I do know that too many American voters give about that much thought before pulling the lever behind that closed curtain on the first Tuesday in November, I also know that there are at least an equal number who have listened, studied, weighed, argued, etc. before making that decision. Sadly, the latter group appear AWOL when it comes time to elect the board chair.
And, yet, think about some of the consequences to not being strategic in selecting the chair of a board. Meetings don’t run well; goals aren’t accomplished; personal agenda get pushed; decisions are made by one or a few; mission promises fall by the wayside; and this list of horrors could go on and on. To avoid this, the only recourse is being very intentional when electing a board chair. Being intentional is not a matter of asking, “Who wants to be board chair?” Not everyone who wants to be board chair is qualified and/or capable of being a good chair, nor should we dismiss considering someone as a candidate simply because s/he doesn’t want to be chair. (It is different if personal or professional demands prohibit a person from being chair now.) Too often people want and don’t want to be chair because they misunderstand the role and scope of office.
The intentional process in selecting a chair—and determining whether being a chair is right for you—begins by being very clear as to the criteria that make for a good chair. While not an exhaustive list, I’d say that the list that follows is a mandatory minimum. With the exception of the first two items, which are tied for most important, the list is in no particular order. A good board chair possesses the following:
- An understanding of the real roles and responsibilities of a nonprofit board, which may not be aligned with the board’s current practices, and who puts the emphasis on job in the description of nonprofit board member as the oxymoron that it is: volunteer job. The real roles and responsibilities are those outlined in trainings and books and articles authored by experts; more often than not, they are not what was learned at the previous board(s) on which a person served.
- An understanding of the real roles and responsibilities of a board chair, which, once again, may not be aligned with the practices of the current board chair. It is understanding, as stated above, the difference between using the position to advance personal agenda and power and using the position to advance the mission and the organization.
- Passion for, and commitment to, the mission of the organization.
- Respect and appreciation for the collaborative, group decision-making process (as well as collaboration in and of itself), as this is the very core of how a successful board functions, while also knowing when and how it is time to bring that process to its intended end—a decision.
- An ability to nudge and hold others accountable without being demeaning and seeming bossy.
- An appreciation for the fact that the person filling the position of board chair is a role model for the rest of the other board members and must, thus, be the first, while never the only: the first to make her/his annual contribution, the first to model being a good ambassador, the first to volunteer to attend a collaborator’s event, etc.
- The respect of all of the other board members, the executive director and staff, to the extent staff knows the individual.
- Proficiency in facilitation such that s/he knows how to run a successful meeting that, among other things, provides for a safe and open space for discussion, engages everyone in the process while not allowing anyone or any few to dominate, moves the process forward to a logical end, enables the clash of ideas and not the clash of personalities, etc.
- Great communication skills, both written and verbal, and understands the important role communication plays in successful group dynamics.
- The time to do the job and do it well.
- The ability to inspire others, particularly to want to be the best board members they can be.
Once you’ve identified candidates who meet these criteria, then the most important determinate must come into play: what do we need? What any board and organization need in its board chair is not stagnant over time; what is needed, in terms of the personality traits of a board chair, varies with an organization’s life cycle, its strategic priorities and the times. When engaged in a strategic planning process, for example, you want a board president who, first, believes in the importance of strategic planning, but second, believes in the importance of process and detail, is data-driven and is good at corralling people. But if the organization is about to start a major fundraising campaign of some sort, you want an extroverted glad-hander who speaks with passion about the mission, the organization and the fundraising project.
If you can’t find this all in one person, don’t settle. Opt instead for co-chairs.