Board Chairs generally have two primary roles: to guide the governance process with the whole board and to be the board spokesperson. Let’s first consider the board role in guiding the governance process. Generally, the Board Chair chairs board meetings, making sure that the agenda is followed and that all of the board members are engaged. The Board Chair is also responsible for ensuring that the right things come to the board table, and therefore is the one responsible for the board agenda.
A third element of guiding the governance process is for the Board Chair to ensure that all of the board members are appropriately engaged. If board members miss meetings, don’t do pre-meeting preparation, or don’t contribute during board discussions, it’s appropriate for the Board Chair to talk with them and encourage them to fulfill their roles more effectively.
The second role of the Board Chair is usually to be the spokesperson for the board. Board Chairs generally fulfill both an internal and external role here. Internally, the Board Chair is the primary liaison with the senior staff person between board meetings: the go-to person for the senior staff person and the one who communicates major messages to the senior staff person on behalf of the board.
The external spokesperson role of the Board Chair is to build a great public image for the organization. This involves communicating with the organization’s owners or members, with the public, with the media, and with its organizational peers. When speaking on behalf of the organization it is important for the Board Chair to share the majority view of the board, even if it isn’t his personal opinion.
Notice, I didn’t say that the Board Chair should express his opinions during board discussions. Often a trusted opinion leader is selected as the Board Chair and his ideas are valued. However, during board discussions it’s important for the meeting chair to focus on managing the meeting process, not to step into content himself. If the Board Chair suspects he has unique, important opinions or information that will likely not get mentioned unless he participates in the discussion, a best practice is to ask the Vice-Chair to chair the meeting so he can be engaged in the content.
I encourage you to select a Board Chair that has the skills to fulfill the role. Choose someone who can facilitates meetings; somebody who’s comfortable having casual conversations with people and encouraging them to fulfill their role better; someone who has strong communication skills. Both one-on-one communication skills on sensitive issues and large group communications skills are valuable. When you select a Board Chair with the skills to be both the governance process guide and the voice of the board, you will be on your pathway to governance excellence.
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