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Effective Chairs Build Relationships
Board chairs must also be skilled at building relationships with directors and facilitating a culture where all perspectives are welcome and heard – not just those that are the loudest.
Ongoing Feedback is Key to Effectiveness
Ongoing evaluations – both formal and informal – ensure the board is as effective as possible. Effective feedback can also come from internal sources, or independent evaluations from outside consultants.
Rooting Out Dysfunction is Imperative
Board chairs must be willing and able to share both positive and constructive feedback with board members – especially underperformers. In some cases, it may be necessary to reorient the board’s structure.
Jeri Isbell, an independent board member serving multiple boards, Jeannie Diefenderfer, CEO of Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance, and Stuart R. Levine, an independent director and CEO of Stuart Levine & Associates, explore the important role board chairs play in building strong culture and driving board effectiveness.
Building a strong culture is foundational to the success of any board of directors. Of course, each director contributes to building and cultivating such a culture. But there’s one member – the board chair – that has an especially critical role to play.
In fact, great board chairs are an essential element of great boards.
What sets great board chairs apart – and how do great board chairs increase the effectiveness of the board and the organization as a whole?
At our most recent ATLAS Leadership series webinar, a panel of seasoned NACD-certified directors – including Stuart R. Levine, an independent director and board consultant, Jeri Isbell, an independent board member serving multiple boards, and Jeannie Diefenderfer, CEO of Higher Ambition Leadership Alliance – led a discussion on the topic of board chairs. They explored the important (and evolving) role of board chairs – and what it is that sets great chairs apart from the rest.
The discussion covered topics including:
The misunderstood and often-missed warning signs of ineffective leadership
Tactics and actions you can take to develop director collaboration
How to encourage and accurately analyze feedback to optimize board performance
Here, we’ll share some of the top takeaways from this session.
Effective Chairs Build Productive Relationships
Each board chair brings unique background and experience to their role. However, there are some common traits across all effective board chairs.
Board chairs must have the ability to build a strong relationship with the CEO. This helps ensure alignment and open, honest communication. As Isbell put it, the board needs “someone who is going to be able to partner well with the CEO.” Diefenderfer agreed. “Establishing and sustaining a relationship with the CEO is key,” she said.
Board chairs must also be skilled at building relationships with fellow board members and facilitating a culture where all perspectives are welcome and all voices are heard – not just those that are the loudest.
“You have multiple people from multiple backgrounds sitting around the table,” said Isbell. “You want someone who can pull out from each person in the room their thoughts and comments – and make sure they’re heard.”
Levine recommended going around the table at the end of the board meeting and asking each member to share the “three things on your mind based on today’s conversation.” Then, the board chair can consolidate this feedback and share it with the CEO.
The entire panel agreed that the board chair must have “incredible communication skills.” According to Isbell, “it all starts with listening. Listening to listen, not to communicate.”
Diefenderfer agreed. “Deep listening is a skill that’s so critical for being a board chair,” she said. She went on to explain that high emotional intelligence (EQ) is also key. “High EQ helps the chair get to the kernel of what’s being said and know what should be exchanged between the management team and the board.”
Ongoing Feedback is Key to Effectiveness
You can’t improve what you don’t measure. It may be cliche, but it’s true in all areas of business – including board effectiveness. Ongoing evaluations – both formal and informal – ensure the board is as effective as possible.
Isbell discussed the powerful impact of 360 evaluations. “Each of us writes down our strengths and areas for improvement,” she explained. “Then, we think of those for each of our partner board members. The entire process is led by the board chair.”
According to Isbell, this process yields rich, valuable conversations that allow each board member to improve in their role. “It’s really great for the chair to have those robust conversations because we all want to improve and do better,” she explained.
Diefenderfer, on the other hand, has seen tremendous value from independent board evaluations. Bringing in a trusted resource to perform an independent evaluation can “produce an outcome where the board can commit to doing something differently or better,” she said.
It’s Imperative to Root Out Dysfunction
Of course, there are some board members who aren’t effective. In fact, according to PwC’s 2022 Annual Corporate Directors Survey, nearly half of directors think one or more of their fellow directors should be replaced.
Levine calls these folk “underperforming assets.” “They take the energy out of the culture,” he said.
Board chairs must be willing and able to share both positive and constructive feedback with board members – especially underperformers. “The longer one waits, the bigger the missed opportunity of not having someone amazing in that seat that can be an equal contributor,” said Isbell.
Succession Planning Must be a Top Priority
Great board chairs play a critical role in CEO succession. Pragmatically, this includes identifying who will step in in the short term. But board chairs must also consider where the organization is going in the future – and what the “CEO of tomorrow” looks like.
“You want to be able to promote from within,” said Isbell. “You have to identify the lead candidates and what you’re going to do to move them to different job responsibilities to get them the experience they need.” However, she recognizes that an external search is important too. “You do have to look externally to do the best selection possible,” she said.
Diefenderfer advises that CEO succession planning isn’t something to put off. “A best practice is to start the succession planning the minute the CEO arrives,” she said.
Board chairs must also lead the charge with board succession planning. “You must make sure you keep some refreshment so it’s not one voice, one view,” said Isbell. “It starts with asking ‘what is the company of the future? What skill sets will we need?’”
Diefenderfer shared that on one board, there was a policy that every three years, directors would rotate to take different committee chair roles. “One of the positives was that it affected the way the nominating and governance committee looked at incoming board members,” she explained. “Our bar was pretty high in terms of what kind of people we wanted because everyone has the potential to be a committee chair.”
Ready to learn more about increasing productivity from your board’s committees? Register today for the next Atlas Leadership Webinar, Getting More from Board Committees, featuring Erik Hanberg, author of “The Little Book of Boards.”
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