5 qualities that make a good board chair

September 30, 2022, 6:00 PM UTC
Experts in management consulting share the kinds of personality traits one needs to serve in this role.
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If you’ve ever attended a board meeting led by an effective chair, it probably becomes clear quite quickly that this person possesses a unique blend of skills—from diplomacy and intellectual curiosity to an uncanny ability to always keep the big picture in mind.

Right now, this is the exact person you should have leading your board. In fact, having a qualified and effective board chair has become more important than ever as corporate management faces rapid change across a broad range of issues.

“These changes include the ever-present work from home topic, vaccines, sustainability, cybersecurity, workforce behavior, and the speed of digital transformation,” says Jeff Sanders, co–managing partner of the global CEO and board of directors practice at Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm based in Chicago.

During this unprecedented time, punctuated by the Great Resignation and an ever-evolving pandemic, it’s critical to have a strong leader in every boardroom.

“There’s so much for board chairs to focus on right now, including how to lead an inclusive workforce and how to balance profit agendas and motives,” Sanders says. “There’s also no playbook or history to help guide a board chair, which makes the job all the more challenging.”

For these reasons alone, an effective board chair must be driven, says Lisa Mann, who leads the consumer practice at Raines, an executive search firm in New York City.

“This person has to be ruthlessly focused on the ambition for the company, creating the best culture for the board, and facilitating processes,” says Mann, former global president at PepsiCo.

And when a company faces market challenges, the board chair needs to be the person who fosters collaboration, adds Coco Brown, CEO and founder of Athena Alliance, where she’s played a pivotal role in educating and training women to successfully apply and fill coveted board positions in companies throughout the Fortune 500.

“If strategies aren’t playing out or stock prices are dropping, for example, the chair needs to focus on getting everyone to work together,” Brown says. “This is the time the board chair needs to help everyone find the best paths forward, to align with the decisions being made, and to behave in ways that best support those who have to run the company on a day-to-day basis, from the CEO down, all the while protecting stakeholder interests, too.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that a board chair should be well-schooled in conflict resolution.

“When you’re chair of the board, the best way to get results is to make sure you’re enabling and facilitating extraordinary conversations,” Mann says. “You don’t ever want to shy away from the harder conversations that need to be had.”

Here, the five key traits of the most effective board chair:

You ask good questions

It’s hard to lead when you don’t understand the issues facing the team, Sanders notes. “I encourage board chairs to spend time asking questions of the CEO and key leadership,” he says. “This way when you’re leading board discussions you’ll have empathy for what everyone is going through and can help drive board topics accordingly.”

You’re a natural at running meetings

Since it’s inevitable that some board members will consume more time during board meetings than others, the board chair needs to be the voice of reason. “A board chair needs to be really thoughtful and make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to communicate,” Sanders says. “It’s also important to give board members feedback as quickly as possible if they’re contributing too much or too little.”

You constantly think about the skill sets of your board members

Not only does the board chair need to have an extraordinary relationship with the CEO, but the chair must do his or her best to always keep an eye on the makeup of the entire board. “As a board chair you’re not the decider since there’s always a nominating committee, but you should be ruthlessly focused on the culture of the board and who is on it from a capabilities perspective,” Mann says.

You are focused on diversity

Today’s board chairs are looking at their boards from the perspective of diversity in all its forms. “When we talk about board composition we’ve seen that morphing into not just diversity from a race and ethnicity perspective, but diversity in terms of skill sets, experiences, and tenure in the boardroom,” says Carey Oven, national managing partner of Deloitte’s Center for Board Effectiveness in Detroit.

You have to be available

This role—more than any other at a company—is one in which you’re engaged significantly both inside and outside the boardroom, Brown says. “The chair should have a deep relationship with all the board members, the CEO, key management, and stakeholders,” she explains. “It should be a relationship built on trust and understanding. After all, you need to be the person everyone goes to in order to solve issues between board members and the CEO.”

You have to be the person the CEO can call to talk through corporate issues, in particular as each one relates to what should be brought to the board for discussion—and how.

“Ultimately, your job is to work with the CEO to be sure the board isn’t caught off guard,” Brown says. “You want to make sure the board has the tools and learning support it needs to be in tune with the business. That’s critical.”

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