Is your chair really working for the board?

By: Dale Simpson

According to a recent global survey, the boards that are most effective and well-rounded also have the strongest board dynamics, characterised by openness, trust, and collaborative senior executives and board directors—a group that includes the CEO and the chair, a crucial factor.

The inadequacy of chair leadership  is evident from these survey results by Stanford University; 

Source: Stanford Closer Look Series, 2017

It's true - not everyone is qualified to lead a board or committee. A director might be a valuable board member (or even an effective current or former CEO) but not qualified for board leadership.

Temperament is often key to effectiveness in the role.

A successful board leader needs to be adept at translating the voice of the board to management, and the voice of management to the board as well as managing the board room dynamics.

The chair fulfills a critical role by identifying inappropriate behaviour and encouraging desired behaviours so vital to good boardroom dynamics. These individuals are also the interface with management and need a communication style that is clear, concise, and constructive.

Three signs you have the wrong chair

Four tips for ensuring your board leadership is effective


1  Choose board leadership using specific criteria tailored to the role. Not everyone has the behavioural attributes to be effective. 

2  Do not promote board members to leadership positions based solely on seniority. 

3  Be proactive in developing a pipeline of talent available for leadership roles. Create a skills and experience matrix that plots the existing skill sets of directors against the needs of the board. 

4  Rotate committee chairs to develop a future lead director or chairman and to refresh committees with new perspectives. Do not rotate too frequently such that you create disruption

                                                                             Source: Stanford Closer Look Series, 2017

Creating criteria for good chairing

A pivotal step is developing specific criteria and skill sets to determine the most suitable person for board leadership. 

Here are some ideas about criteria from Directors at Work: A Practical Guide for Boards, Thomson Reuters, Sydney. https://www.amazon.com.au/Directors-Work-Practical-Guide-Boards/dp/0864607806


1 Strong and acknowledged leadership ability

Elements of strong leadership include the ability to command respect and inspire others and, where necessary, convert them to a common vision for the organisation.

2 Ability to establish a sound relationship with the CEO

The chair must manage the “tension” that exists between the role of the board and that of management lead by the CEO. To do this, the chair must have the ability to cultivate a working partnership with the CEO. The relationship between the two should be supportive and collaborative, while remaining independent.

3 Passion for openness and transparency

The chair must lead by example in this area. He or she must be committed to safeguarding stakeholders’ interests in the organisation and constantly act to demonstrate effective stewardship of resources and be consistently intolerant of inappropriate practices.

4 Greater willingness to devote time to the organisation

The time demands on the chair will be greater than those on a director. The chair must show a willingness to devote the extra time the duties of the chair require.

5 Capacity to deal with the board as a group and as individuals

The ability to initiate and lead regular reviews of the board’s effectiveness is essential. In addition, while the chair’s focus must be on the organisation, he or she must consider the performance of individual directors and have the ability to counsel and advise them where necessary. As such, the chair should possess the ability to adjust their communication style to suit individual board members.

6 Demonstrated conduct as a role model of the organisation’s values and beliefs

Demonstrated by a commitment to showing leadership by behaving ethically in all personal and professional situations. The chair’s role is framed by the board's acceptance of legal and ethical standards of conduct. The chair, in the first instance, sets the “tone at the top” of the organisation.

7 Capacity to conduct meetings and lead group decision-making processes

The chair’s capacity to conduct effective meetings will facilitate effective decision-making. For important decisions, a chair should ensure:

Source: G. Kiel, G. Nicholson, J. A. Tunny & J. Beck, 2012, Directors at Work: A Practical Guide for Boards, Thomson Reuters, Sydney.


The takeaway? The most effective and successful boards have a strong collaborative and positive culture cultivated through the skillful leadership of a well-rounded chairperson. 

Good board leaders are essential to ensure that the voice of the board is heard in management, communication is constructive within the boardroom and inappropriate behaviour is identified and curbed. 

Creating criteria for identifying candidates for board leadership will also prove beneficial in recruiting an ideal chairperson for your board, however, it is imperative that any individual chosen for this role meets your specific guidelines for success.

All in all, having an effective leader and good governance practices pays off by making any organisation’s board more efficient and productive. 

Always ask - is your chair working for your board? 


For help in creating chairperson competencies or professional coaching for chair roles, speak to Bravo Careers today.