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Who is Qualified to be the Board Chair?

How is the board chair selected at your organization? Maybe everybody has to take their turn and it rotates on a yearly basis. Maybe the board chair serves until they no longer want to, and then you select another board chair to lead. No matter the strategy for selecting your chair, you need to know who is actually qualified in the first place! Keep reading or watch the video above to learn how to decide who is really qualified to be your next board chair!

Effective Board Chair Characteristics

Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of boards. Doing this work, I have seen many effective board chairs and the characteristics that they possess. Here are some of the behaviors I have seen in effective board chairs:

  1. They meet with the CEO or executive director on a regular basis. This is typically to go over issues happening within the organization or to go over the agenda for board meetings or strategic planning sessions. 
  2. They run a smooth meeting. This includes allowing enough discussion, while also keeping all board members focused and on track.
  3. They are willing to take difficult action. This may include talking with board members who are not engaged at meetings or not attending meetings at all. 
  4. They know when to pass the baton to someone else. Allowing other people to have the opportunity to be the board chair if they would like to is a great quality of an effective board chair. Too often I’ve seen boards where the chair has been chair for 15 or 20 years and that isn’t acceptable! 

Based on those four basic characteristics, is everyone on your board qualified to be the board chair? My guess is probably not! And what is even more important is that many of them don’t even want to be the chair!

Not everyone wants to be the board chair!

Here is a perfect, real-life example of why rotating the chair position every year can be problematic! One of my clients had the practice of rotating their chair position every year, and everyone had to take their turn at the chair position. Their board consisted of seven people, with most of their directors 70 years old or older. When it came time for the youngest person on the board to be chair the next year, they didn’t feel comfortable and left the board. Now, they had to recruit someone else to the board and they lost their youngest member because of this policy!

That’s why we don’t want to force anyone who doesn’t want to be the board chair to fill the position. However, we do want people who would like to be the chair to have an opportunity to do so.  

What’s a good term limit?

Additionally, I often get asked what I think a good term limit may be for the chair of the board. I personally think that three years is a prime amount of time for a board chair to serve. Any less time, say one year, is far too short. Mainly because the chair doesn’t get a chance to learn everything about the position and feel comfortable in a year. On the other hand, anything over the three or four year mark is getting to be too long and doesn’t allow other people the opportunity to serve as board chair if they would like. . 

What You Can Do!

  1. Come up with board leadership guidelines for your board of directors. These are guidelines which lay out the way you want your board to function. Examples of things on your leadership guidelines may be “how many years should somebody be on the board before they are in a leadership role?” or outlining term limits for each leadership position.
  2. Create a board leadership succession plan. If you have a succession plan, it will take the politics and the emotions out of picking your next board leadership. In the succession plan you will formally ask people if they are interested in a leadership position and when they would be interested and then you can see where those people may have gaps in critical areas and develop them. If you know ahead of time who may want to be in a leadership position, it will make it easier to choose when the time comes.
  3. Provide training for your board chair and for anyone who may want to be the chair. There are courses online and in person training sessions that will help people learn the ins and outs of the chair position. Commonly board members may feel like they wouldn’t know how to perform the board chair’s duties, so they don’t want to be the chair. If there was training it would help everyone feel more comfortable.

Below you can download a PDF that gives you an example of board leadership guidelines. You can download that, edit it to work for your organization, and use the guidelines on your board.