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Leadership of the Board Chair in Creating Board Culture

Posted by Mindy R. Wertheimer, Ph.D., LCSW on Jun 2, 2016 8:00:00 AM

team-culture-image.jpgAre you the next or the new board chair? Thinking about it in your future? Routinely, a new board chair begins to receive advice – and warnings – from others such as “but we have always done it that way,” or “don’t rock the boat” and, on the flip side, “breathe new life into our board” or “board members aren’t engaged  no one shows up for board meetings.” What do all these comments have in common? They all refer to board culture.

 A favorite quote of mine from John Carver (1997):

“Perpetually redefine quality. The definition of quality never stands still. What constitutes quality governance grows as we do, yet always remains a little beyond our grasp.”  [Boards That Make a Difference]

As quality governance advances, so too should board culture. It shouldn’t be stagnant or ignored, but embraced and fostered. Board culture provides the foundation for how governance tasks are carried out, and it’s the board chair’s role to ensure its well-being.

How can you optimize board culture? Leave personal agendas aside and don’t make this about personalities – or let anyone else make it about personalities; stay focused on creating a board culture that drives board outcomes around the governance work supported by organizational mission, vision, and values. Build off your board’s strengths and be inclusive. Engage the full board along with your governance committee and partnership with the chief executive.

Begin by assessing the current culture and then decide what needs to change. The governance committee plays a pivotal role in partnering with the board chair in this two-step task:  

1. Assess current board culture:
  • How are we defining board culture?
  • What does it look like in action?
  • What about our current culture works well to support our governance activities? What are our challenges?

2. Build a robust board culture (be guided by the “to do” list below):

  • How should we redefine our board culture?
  • What should we do differently to build and nurture our board culture?
  • What’s our action plan for change? How will it be monitored?


  1. Ensure that the board is actually governing. Each board member should understand one’s governance role and responsibilities. Duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience should be followed by all board members and, as board chair, you must ensure these standards of conduct are operationalized as a component of board culture. 
  1. Create a board culture that empowers the board to its rightful place as the organization’s governing body. Ensure that the committee structure supports the work of the board, not operating in place of the board. This includes the executive committee, which too often is used as a de facto board. 
  1. Incorporate the "Twelve Principles of Governance that Empower Exceptional Boards" in building board culture. These principles focus on the process and context of governing (the how), which directly impact the outcomes of the governance tasks (the what). As board chair, your ability and commitment to apply these very tangible principles will help define your board culture. 
  1. Inspire and empower board members to follow your lead in devoting time and effort to foster an effective board culture and value its importance. Each board member is accountable for his/her actions and has responsibility in constructing and nurturing the board culture as witnessed in their behaviors and attitudes. 
  1. Ensure all communications are reciprocal, respectful, and inclusive of all voices and viewpoints. 
  1. Use your new board member orientation to communicate about board culture. Someone who has served on another board does not guarantee that its board culture aligns with your organization’s board culture. Don’t assume anything – take the time to educate and communicate! 
  1. Facilitate discussion to establish group norms to support board culture. These agreed-upon norms govern the interactions among board members in supporting productive teamwork. Such norms might include: no texting during meetings; be prepared; be punctual; communicate respectively – don’t attack individuals; listen attentively; and speak with one voice outside the boardroom. 
  1. Conduct an annual board evaluation that reflects both governance tasks and board culture. BoardSource recommends a formal, written evaluation once every two years, with a less formal process in the off-years. Use the results to inform growth towards quality governance framed around a robust board culture. 


By following these tips and engaging your governance committee to oversee many of these to do items, you have the opportunity to advance board culture during your tenure and tee it up a bit higher for the next board chair.


Looking for more resources about board culture and board chair responsibilities?

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Topics: Culture, Board Chair

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