Why would anyone want to be a Chair?

how to be a good Chair

Why would anyone want to be a Chair?

It’s all fun and games until the Chair’s head is on the chopping block, so why put it there in the first place?
As the recent Royal Commissions swept through corporate Australia, we saw a number of high profile, competent Chairs resign.

The bloodbath in the press, the reputational damage and the intense pressure on their families was enough to convince hundreds of non-executive directors to keep their hands firmly in their laps when it came to installing a new Chair.

Never before has there been a more pressing need for high-quality Chairs to step up and show strong leadership. So let’s take a look at what Chairs are really on the hook for, and why developing the Chair’s skills are important if you want to be a good Chair.


The pressure of being a Chair

A Chair will face pressure from multiple angles, including:

  • The truth is, a good Chair ends up devoting two or three days a week for the Board they Chair which is roughly 0.6 of a full-time role. Unfortunately, when the Chair has not spent enough time building the capability and effectiveness of the Board it becomes painfully obvious.  Many Boards found this out the hard way during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Directors and Chairs work their whole careers to build up their reputation, yet it can be shattered in an instant.
  • On top of the time investment, the Chair is also often a target for the press. Although the CEO is the public face of a business, the Chair needs to be prepared to face questions from stakeholders and shareholders.

Good Chairs can exert incredible influence over the direction of a business, or indeed, the direction of an industry.  But in order to leave a powerful legacy, Chairs need to involve and empower their fellow directors to put down the lamingtons, get focused and develop the long-lasting vision for the company.


So, how to be a good Chair?

A good Chair must be willing to offer:

  • Extra time with the CEO and management
  • Added preparation in between meetings
  • Additional feedback to directors
  • Time building relationships with stakeholders and attending events
  • Extra contribution to strategic discussions

Here are our other tips on how to be a good Chair:

1. Run a tight ship: No matter how complex the business, simple and clear processes will enable the board to function smoothly and make strong, clear decisions. Keep the Board packs tight. Loading your board members with narrative and statistics will introduce confusion, so work hard to share insights not just numbers. Keep Board papers tied to the strategy.

2. Share the load: Sure, you’ve got the top job, but the art of good chairing includes effective delegation. We recommend optimal use of committees, maximising the Company Secretarial function and engaging external consultants to assist.

3. Develop the Board’s capabilities: High quality Board members (and high quality people generally) are always eager to learn new things, so make sure you’re offering them opportunities to develop.  If some members are convinced they already know everything, offer yourself the opportunity to upgrade them and find higher quality individuals with humbler character traits. Quickly manage underperformance. If you notice somebody is frequently missing the point, or is failing to commit their full attention to the board, address their underperformance immediately. Hoping someone miraculously finds motivation, or an extra 100 IQ points rarely works. The longer you leave it the more entrenched they become, and the more difficult it is to remove them from the Board.

4. Get the dynamics humming: When it comes to running a competent and productive board, the Chair must facilitate effectively and encourage contributions from everyone. A functioning Board will make your experience as a Chair worth the time investment.  And if you can’t get the dynamics humming – maybe you should just keep your hand on the lamingtons…


About Sterling Black

Sterling Black is a specialist Board and CEO leadership firm. With over 25 years’ experience we give clear recommendations on whether your current leaders are, or can be the leaders you need. We help Boards build the capability to deliver on their vision and plan for expected or unexpected CEO events. We understand how to get CEOs to engage with a development process, how experienced executives best receive feedback and how adults learn.

Contact us today for a confidential discussion.

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