The recipe for the best board chair

What makes the best chair of a nonprofit board of directors?

One could argue that the traditional cultivation process many organizations follow is not necessarily the most effective. You know the practice–a volunteer serves on a committee, is elected to the board, then moves up through the roles of secretary or vice chair, etc., with the expectation that he/she will get a “turn” to be chair when the time comes.

But there are two problems with this system. For one, life is uncertain. Most nonprofits are evolving and need to be ready to adjust strategy and yearly plans of work based on many internal and external factors, some of which are negative and/or arrive unexpectedly. How can you know with certainty today what kind of specific leadership traits you are most going to need in 2015?

Meanwhile, in a perfect scenario, leadership in the role of board chair demands bold choices and innovation. But a volunteer who has “come up through the ranks” is much more likely to be invested in the status quo, modeling the behavior of the chairs who have immediately preceded him/her. This is not a recipe for making bold, and possibly unpopular, choices. Sometimes there are incoming board chairs who know that tough choices need to be made, but hate to have something negative happen “…on their watch.” Hard but needed solutions get postponed.

The more sensible timeline for identifying your next board chair would be to have a board retreat in the second or third quarter that focuses on strategy. Strategic goals are then synthesized into an annual work plan. Then and only then would the board’s executive committee, along with the executive director, define exactly what leadership traits are needed. The best candidate for the year ahead would be identified, asked, and presumably elected. There needs to be a strong “bullpen” of likely candidates with a range of strengths, but–to continue the baseball metaphor–not a formal “batting order.”

Shifts in the economy, trends in your industry, staff transitions, and major changes in funding all represent factors that should go into the mix of choosing your next chair. All that said, here’s our checklist of leadership traits based on decades of work on executive searches, executive coaching, and organizational development. The order of importance of one trait over another is more likely unique to your nonprofit, the dynamic and personalities of your board, and your agency’s history and stage of evolution:

1.  Exceptional verbal communications skills. The best chair can describe, persuade, articulate, and clarify. He/she uses the appropriate tone, jargon, or statistics-or storytelling and humor. He/she is equally capable of informing and engaging people in a small group setting, a formal business meeting, or at the podium at a gala. Knowing what to say and appreciating the setting (i.e., neither too cursory in one’s remarks, nor loquacious) is a true gift. Being a good writer typically follows naturally when one’s speech patterns flow as they should.

2.  Passion and vision. Your chair may be the “face” or “voice” of your organization, embodying your mission and presiding over its most critical governance body. He/she must be able to view challenges strategically and to keep everyone motivated toward a greater good than simply the petty setbacks of the day.

3.  Emotional intelligence. This is often an overlooked area in leadership searches or executive interviews, with too much emphasis on tactical skills and demonstrated accomplishments. Meanwhile, these qualities usually only emerge after a person is installed in a particular role. “Emotional intelligence is defined as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills,” according to the Harvard Business Review. “Your emotional intelligence is more important than vision, toughness, or industry smarts.”

4.  Excellent listening skills. This is so important, it warrants a separate “top 10” bullet aside from communications skills in general. Good listeners give 100% of their attention, truly seeking to appreciate the other’s point of view. They don’t interrupt or “highjack” conversations, or spend their time framing what to say next. They don’t offer unsolicited advice, dismiss topics as trivial, or quickly assure others that they completely understand what the other person is feeling or trying to say.

5.  A “people person” with respect for group process. The best chair runs a strong meeting, making sure everyone is heard; appreciates that different people learn differently, are motivated by different things, and may need time to discuss and absorb information in a variety of ways; builds consensus when it is needed; is unafraid to navigate into uneasy waters when strong opposing opinions threaten to stall progress; follows protocols on authority (i.e., chains of command); and is patient but still able to keep important projects moving forward.

6.  Connection to your issue or industry. Depending on the nature of your mission, your chair needs to bring a strong, heartfelt connection to the work. This connection may be from personal or family experience; it may be from a more academic or professional background; it may be simply a deep caring and concern. Sometimes people get involved with nonprofits almost by accident, discovering their true passion as they volunteer. But how ever this line is ultimately drawn, your chair must be a genuine and credible “champion” of your cause.

7.  Understanding of operational challenges. Your chair cannot live exclusively with his/her head in the clouds, serving as a visionary. At times, he/she must be able to appreciate the competing challenges of behind-the-scenes program logistics, payroll, personnel and passwords. Does the chair directly manage operations? Very rarely. But your leader needs to be thoughtful around operating standards, mindful of employment practices, and realistic about resources. This also means being able to understand financial statements, budgets, and tax and legal documents.

8.  Proven understanding of how to raise money. Your chair does not have to have a specific background in development or years of working on major gifts, but he/she must appreciate the climate for fundraising and the essential strategies to choose from.  He/she must be able to model opening his/her realm of contacts and connections to help build your nonprofit, and your chair needs to be willing to make the ask, visit a prospective funder when needed, and provide thoughtful and helpful support on initiatives such as corporate sponsorships, campaigns, special events, and earned income. Their own actual roll-up-the-sleeves involvement is key, as is encouraging all other board members to do the same.

9.  Sensitivity to the community and culture you serve. It is essential that your chair understand what is unique and, yes, sensitive about the work you’re doing. Your board must not function “…off in some ivory tower” that is literally or figuratively disconnected from the ground level of your mission. A strong board roster may well be filled with diverse figures (i.e., corporate executives, former clients, public sector representatives, and/or philanthropists), but it is the chair who must model the importance of keeping all the vertical lines open, touring sites, attending events, and appreciating your clients’ perspectives first-hand.

10.  Business etiquette. A confident leader doesn’t confuse being tough with being rude. He/she arrives and departs on time, prepares for meetings and presentations, responds promptly to emails and voice messages, remembers peoples’ names, keeps commitments and appointments, and recognizes peoples’ contributions. Your chair must be detail-oriented when it matters, and visionary and inspiring when the time is right.

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