I read an interesting article the other day on Bridgespan’s Web site. It was an interview about nonprofit board service with Phyllis Yale, a Harvard-trained consultant at Bain and Co., the “incubator” of Bridgespan. Phyllis serves on the board of Bridgespan Group, a national nonprofit, as well as Cribs to Crayons, a local, Boston charity. You can read the article here.
When asked how she decides whether or not to serve on a nonprofit board, Phyllis said her number one criterion was whether or not the board and chief executive had an excellent relationship. She said, “I would rather spend my time helping the organization and the CEO be successful, instead of dealing with unproductive dynamics.”
That got me to thinking. How much time do we spend in board meetings playing defense around the personalities and quirks of board members and chief executives? How productive is that? More important, whose responsibility is it to ensure that the dynamics are, indeed, productive?
On the boards I’ve served (and there have been a lot of them), it has nearly always been the board chair who is the key to productive meetings and successful board dynamics. The chair sets the tone for the meetings; acts as a conduit between the chief executive and the rest of the board and as a touchstone for the chief executive—a sounding board, a confidant, a cheerleader, and occasionally a helpful curmudgeon. No one on the board can contribute more to creating that “excellent relationship” than the chair.
In fact, the chair is such a critically important position that all of us should do much more to prepare board members for leadership. Readers of this blog will recall my strong belief in chief executive succession planning, but shouldn’t boards be equally prepared for a change in the board chair position? What does your board do to prepare its next generation of leadership? Here’s an idea: Having a chair-elect position allows another board member to observe and learn from the chair and be prepared to step up when the time comes. Encouraging members with leadership potential to chair board committees gives them another glimpse into what it means to lead the full board. A great chair will mentor future leaders, modeling how governance functions best when the chair works in strategic concert with the chief executive.
I guess you could say a good chair–chief executive relationship is like a good marriage: two independent partners who choose to be interdependent for the sake of the relationship itself. Nurture that relationship, and watch the rest of the board follow, and watch board candidates like Phyllis Yale leap at the chance to serve on your functional, productive board.