Lessons Learned as Board Chair
When I joined the staff of BoardSource in 1992, I would have found it difficult to imagine that 20 years later I’d be invited to join the organization’s board. And my younger self would have been even more astonished at the idea that I would become board chair. But in October 2016, that’s what happened.
Like many newly elected chairs, I was honored but also viewed the responsibility with trepidation. I had led committees and advisory groups, but had never chaired a “real” board. And it wasn’t just any board — it was BoardSource, a national organization that aims to set the standard for effective board leadership. I was excited but nervous.
By the time my term ended last October, I was no longer nervous — and I’m proud of what we accomplished over the two years in partnership with my board colleagues and our amazing staff. I do wish, though, that I could go back in time and tell myself a thing or two as I was getting started as chair. And since I can’t, I thought I’d share the three most important lessons I learned so that other new chairs can avoid my rookie mistakes.
Lesson 1: Be intentional about transition.
One of the many things I admire about Cathy Trower, my successor as chair, is the level of thought and effort she put into planning a smooth transition. At her initiation, we had a series of phone calls with the two of us and with Anne Wallestad, our CEO, to discuss differences in style and expectations, as well as ongoing board work that would need to smoothly span our tenures. We included Cathy in agenda-planning for my last few meetings as chair. We also had a candid discussion about the challenges that can arise when former chairs continue to serve on the board, since I still have a few years left.
As I participated in all that transition planning and saw the benefits, I wondered why I hadn’t done the same thing. I don’t have a good answer. No one told me to, I guess. But I wish I had. I wish I’d asked whether I could participate in the last two regular check-ins between Anne and my predecessor as chair. I wish I’d asked more questions, and listened more.
I also wish I’d recognized, as Cathy did, that my becoming chair was a major transition not just for me, but also for Anne, who needed to build a strong partnership with a new personality, with all his quirks and idiosyncrasies. As I was getting started, Anne invited that conversation, and I was reluctant. I made a semi-joking comment that I didn’t think chief executives should be forced to contort themselves to fit the whims and arbitrary preferences of successive board chairs, and that I would adapt to her needs.
That was shortsighted. Anne persisted and I relented, and we had the conversation, in which she learned that I prefer email to phone calls, like to do video calls when it’s an option, don’t enjoy extemporaneous public-speaking assignments, and require infusions of Diet Dr Pepper to get through board meetings. And I learned that Anne values and craves feedback, doesn’t have a lot of boundary issues around board member contacts with staff, and prefers not to have important conversations by email. She also shares my love of Diet Dr Pepper.
This was not a profound governance conversation — just an honest and intentional two-way effort to assess how we could work together most effectively. We learned a lot about each other, and that laid the groundwork for an effective partnership. My reluctance was misguided.
Lesson 2: Understand that framing matters.
At the first meeting I chaired, one of the agenda items was approval of a policy document that we’d already discussed in concept several times. As a full board we had talked about why we needed the document, why it was important, and what it might include — and we’d agreed to bring a draft forward at that meeting. In planning the agenda with Anne, I hadn’t given much thought beforehand to what either of us might say or what questions might arise. I thought we were all on the same page and couldn’t imagine that the document wouldn’t be approved.
I was wrong.
When the draft came up for discussion, it quickly became evident that my brief and impromptu introductory comments hadn’t provided sufficient context, and that not everyone recalled all our previous discussions. Board members had questions and concerns, and it was clear we weren’t ready for approval. So we formed a task force to rewrite the document, talk through the concerns, and come back to the board with a recommended draft, which ended up being much more thoughtful than the original.
In addition to lessons about ownership and process, my primary takeaway from the experience — my most vivid memory as chair — is the importance of the chair’s role in framing key conversations. Each time a board comes together, the composition of the group may be slightly different, and chairs should not assume that everyone remembers the history and context for every item on the agenda. I never again walked into a board meeting without going through the agenda and thinking carefully about how each item needed to be framed.
Lesson 3: Make time for one-on-one conversations.
One of my resolutions as a new chair was to have a conversation, preferably in person, with every board member to better understand how they were experiencing their board service and to solicit their input and feedback on what we were doing well and what we could do better. For a variety of personal reasons (including a major professional transition), I didn’t end up having those conversations until early in my second year as chair.
Those one-on-one check-ins — which ended up being 30-minute phone calls — provided invaluable insights into the experience my fellow board members were having. The calls helped me better understand board members’ motivations for serving and their interests in future leadership roles. They also helped identify areas where we could improve, such as by reducing the size of board meeting packets.
Even though our board meetings allow for social time and informal one-on-one conversations, those simple, structured calls — asking everyone the same questions — elicited input and insights that I would never have gotten during a group social hour. And nothing else I did as chair generated as much positive feedback.
I wish I’d had those conversations sooner, and more than once.
As a new, first-time chair, I had anxiety about getting everything right and doing as much as I could. Early on, I sometimes found myself doing things that could have been done by others — usually the CEO, the vice chair, or the governance committee chair. Over time, I figured out that my focus needed to be on those things that only the chair can do, and these three lessons are all related to that insight.
Being intentional around transition and partnership with the chief executive requires time and participation from the chair — there’s no substitute or workaround. While responsibility for framing issues and discussions can be shared and delegated, the chair is ultimately responsible, especially when an important outcome is at stake (as I learned the hard way). And the check-ins with each board member provided invaluable context and nuance that helped me get better at framing, planning for the next transition, and working in partnership with the CEO.
All of which was fueled by a never-ending supply of Diet Dr Pepper in our boardroom. Because small things also matter.
Photo by Lisa Helfert