4 ways to set your board Chair up for success

Your ability to set your Chair up for success and to help your Chair to improve their performance plays a pivotal role in the success of your board, your CEO and your organisation. The tone set from the top by your board and Chair has such a significant impact on the culture, character and performance of your organisation.

In our experience high performance can only become a way of life for a board, an executive team and an organisation, if the board is very deliberate in its commitment to achieve high performance and if it sustains that commitment over time.

And a Chair’s leadership can act as a powerful driving force and a strong catalyst for achieving and sustaining high performance. The opposite is also true.

Here are four ways to help you set up your Chair for success which will also set up your board and your organisation for success.

1. Go out of your way to back your Chair

If all directors went out of their way to back their Chair by providing ongoing encouragement and support, and to challenge the Chair in a robust and constructive way, more Chairs would increase their performance and effectiveness.

In the words of one director we interviewed recently, “I want to see our Chair flourish because I know that if our Chair flourishes so will we as a board and so will our organisation”. These are very wise words.

The ideal time for the board to collectively resolve to back the Chair is at the time a new person takes over as Chair, but if your board hasn’t already done this, the next best time to do that is right now.

Backing your Chair, of course, cannot be a one-way street. Your Chair needs to resolve to provide the necessary leadership and commitment to the board through thick and thin and over a sustained period. Having these sorts of very deliberate discussions around your board table and setting these clear expectations from the start or at key junctures in your board’s journey can make a big difference to the performance and effectiveness of your Chair and of your board.

The events set out below can be used as a catalyst to have some of the discussions referred to above.

2. Include a review of the Chair’s effectiveness in your regular board review

A review of the effectiveness and performance of the Chair is an essential component of any good board review, whether it is a lighter touch or in-depth review. The lighter touch and in-depth reviews should both use a benchmarked survey which will include several survey items in relation to the Chair’s effectiveness and performance and be benchmarked against other similar organisations.

The benchmarked survey will act as a good baseline from which to monitor changes in the Chair’s performance and effectiveness in subsequent years.

An externally facilitated board review will almost certainly include interviews with the directors and executives who completed the survey and will normally include a question as to the strengths of, and any suggestions for, the Chair.

Interviewee responses will normally be randomised to protect the anonymity of interviewees before being provided in writing to the Chair. The external governance expert should encourage the Chair to determine what three things the Chair believes others are saying to them in relation to their strengths as well as the suggestions others have for them, and then to share that summary with their fellow directors.

When Chairs display vulnerability by acknowledging that they have areas for improvement, committing to making improvements in the relevant areas and asking their fellow directors to assist them in the process, it sets a high bar and a good example for other directors and the CEO to do the same.

3. Schedule a time for the Chair to step out of the boardroom once a year

Whilst we consider this to be best practice and whilst some companies have been doing this for years, most boards haven’t heard of or thought of using this practice let alone enshrined it in their annual governance calendar.

We recommend that all companies schedule a 10-minute segment into their annual board calendar where they ask the Chair to step out of the room and where a senior director is asked to facilitate a discussion in relation to the strengths of and any suggestions for the Chair.

That senior director might summarise the board’s overall discussions when the Chair returns and will provide a more detailed debrief to the Chair off-line. In our experience most Chairs cherish this valuable feedback.

We encourage Chairs to play back to the whole board at a future meeting what they heard from others to be their main strengths and the suggestions others have for them, and how they intend to act on such feedback.

It is clearly much better to put this important governance practice in place when things are going well than to try to adopt the practice when things aren’t going so well.

We recommend the same process for Chairs of board Committees.

4. Give a senior director the specific role of providing ongoing feedback to the Chair

Most Chairs will use some of their more senior fellow directors as a sounding board on issues and to seek guidance on certain matters from directors with particular domain expertise and that is to be encouraged.

Regular discussions between the Chair and individual directors are important and that should include having the courage and ability to challenge the Chair when appropriate as well. Where a director doesn’t feel comfortable addressing certain issues with the Chair, the board needs to ensure that it has a process and a safe place for any such concerns to be shared.

Not many job descriptions for a Deputy Chair include the role of being the conduit for providing ongoing feedback to the Chair, including being the person that other directors can talk to if they have any concerns about the Chair, particularly if they aren’t comfortable addressing those issues directly with them. We think this is an important role for a Deputy Chair.

If there is no Deputy Chair the role described can be given to the Chair of the Governance or Remuneration and Nominations Committee. In this way all concerns of all directors have the best chance of being dealt with appropriately.

Remember, the tone set by the board and Chair plays a pivotal role in setting the overall tone and culture of the organisation. These 4 suggestions will help to put your organisation on the path to high performance.

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