Making Exceptional Chairs Common


By Chris Gandy

Most of us will have stories to tell about how people find themselves being appointed Chairs of not for profit organisations:

“Guess what happened, I couldn’t make the AGM and ended up getting elected as the Chair” or “When they called for nominations everyone took a step back and I was too slow”.

Amusing stuff, if only it wasn’t true.

The rather limited body of research into the effectiveness of Board Chairs seems to suggest that these sorts of selection practices in the sector has led to a position where an exceptional Chair is an exception.

Clearly for our sector to be highly effective we can’t continue to tolerate this situation and we need to urgently develop or search for people with the right characteristics to lead our cause-based organisations through increasingly difficult times.

OK, so our Causes need and deserve to led by exceptional people, but what do they look like? What characteristics do they have that make them so exceptional?

To me we should be looking to the Corporate sector for guidance here. Fundamentally the governance requirements in both sectors are the same so an outstanding Chair of an ASX Company should also be an outstanding Chair of a not for profit.

Fortunately, also, there is a relative mountain of good research data in the corporate sector to give us a hand in this regard. One recent paper that caught my eye that I would like to share with you is by Alvarez & Marsal.

They identified 8 characteristics that caused exceptional chairs to standout from their peers. These were:

  1. Understanding the Business – Exceptional Chairs make it their job to develop a profound understanding of their organisation’s

    market, operations, values and stakeholder expectations. They know the needs and issues of the business. This depth of understanding also helps them quickly identify threats and, importantly, opportunities as they arise.

  2.  Future Focused – Exceptional Chairs are proactive and forward- thinking. They develop a clear template for the future which gives the board a sound framework for discussions and decision making.

  3. Build & Get the Best From the Board – Exceptional Chairs know and understand that they can do little without an effective board. They know how to attract and retain the best people for their board. Beyond this, they know how to mould them into a team and to get the maximum value from each member.

  4. Relationship with the CEO –The relationship between the Chair and CEO is pivotal to a successful board. Although the Chair is very much in command, they are not a dominating force but create an environment where open debate thrives. Once satisfied that the right CEO is in place, an exceptional Chair openly backs them.

  5. Providing Air Cover – (Love this one!)  Though they trust the CEO’s abilities and rely on the CEO to carry out the strategy for change, an exceptional Chair also recognises the need to provide support. They know when to enter the fray and when to pull back a provide backroom help. Always hovering to assist when appropriate.

  6. Taking Tough Decisions – An exceptional Chair can cut through complex issues and reach clear and correct decisions. They are quite prepared to place their own reputation on the line by making the big calls that are in the best interests of the organisation’s Cause.

  7. Setting the Cultural Tone – The Chair is responsible for developing and embedding values as well as encouraging performance. They bring vigour and energy to the board. They create a ‘can-do’ mentality among their fellow Board Members, the Senior Leadership Team and right through the organisation.

  8. Communicating With Stakeholders – An exceptional Chair understands that effectively communicating the mission and strategy gives stakeholders confidence in the organisations future direction. This is critical for ongoing support. They don’t, however,  allow themselves to become the centre of attention. They never undermine their CEO, nor lose sight of the organisation’s mission.

    You may have other characteristics of an Exceptional Chair that you wish to add to the mix. But I am sure you would agree that if as a sector we collectively made an effort to support our Board Members to develop and hone these characteristics, exceptional Chairs will become commonplace.

    Chris is the founder and a Director of Cause and Effective. If you are not there yet we can help you along the path to becoming an exceptional Chair of a cause-based organisation.


About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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