7 Strengths of exceptional board chairs

October 2014

Over the past seven years, I’ve had the privilege of working with three exceptional board chairmen at CARE for AIDS. Each one was very different in their backgrounds, styles, and strengths and uniquely suited to serve the ministry during that season. However, despite all that made them different, the purpose of this post is to discuss what they had in common. What is it that has made these men such exceptional board chairmen?

Above: our current chairman, Cliff Robinson, giving out a graduation certificate at the Githurai center

I believe that great board chairmen possess the following seven strengths:

1. Lead by example

We set a high bar that we expect all our board members to fulfill, which includes the giving of prayer, time, relationships, and resources. The board chairman sets an example for others to follow by meeting and exceeding these expectations.

2. Take ownership of the board from the Executive Director (ED)

It was a huge burden lifted from me when I was able to pass ownership of the board to our board chairman. This takes a number of different forms. He is responsible for scheduling and facilitating meetings. He holds other board members accountable for attendance, giving, and overall engagement. And lastly, he invites new members onto the board and transitions members off the board when necessary.

3. Hold the ED accountable and look out for his or her interests

This one requires both truth and grace on the part of your board chairman. Our chairmen have always led the board in conducting my annual performance review. Far too many Executive Directors do not get the feedback they need or want from their board. While the feedback I receive is not always positive, our chairman delivers the feedback to me in a constructive and actionable way. While accountability is paramount, our chairmen have also been my biggest cheerleaders. They remind me to keep my priorities in check, give praise generously, and always make sure the board gives adequate attention to my compensation. It is great when you can trust that your chairman has your best interests at heart.

4. Set boundaries between what the board should and should not decide

While the board does have certain legal and fiduciary responsibilities, this point is in regard to how the board works with the ED. The chairman sets boundaries to ensure that the ED has autonomy to make the decisions that have been entrusted to him. The board should still provide counsel on strategy, programs, human resources, etc., but ultimate decision-making authority is afforded to the ED. However, the board is responsible to hold the ED accountable, evaluate performance, and terminate if necessary.

5. Listen and ask the right questions

Chairman throughout our history have been given the unique gift of facilitation. They can listen to all the competing voices in a meeting and distill that information into concise, insightful takeaways. They also can ask the right questions to get us to our desired result. This is a hard quality to find in a chairman but has been invaluable to our organization.

6. Look to the future

The ED can become so consumed with current demands that it is often hard to look 3-5 years out. The chairman plays a critical role in leading that conversation about long-term succession and strategic planning.

7. Prepare his or her successor and know when it is time for a change

All of our chairmen have stepped down at some point but remained engaged in the ministry. They each knew when their particular skills were no longer best suited for the stage or needs of the ministry. You need someone who is self-aware and is working to replace himself or herself.

We have been blessed beyond belief with great board chairmen. I hope these observations will serve as affirmation for some nonprofits and set a high bar for others to strive to achieve.

Thank you to all of our board chairmen for your remarkable service to this ministry and the impact you have made on my life.

What have you noticed in other board chairmen that you would add to this list?