- Stepping into a chair role involves learning organizational procedures as well as maximizing accountability and engagement.
- Clarity and consensus are crucial for running board meetings and other meetings.
- A chair should also negotiate schedules, promote well-rounded engagement, mediate arguments, and establish meeting etiquette.
When COVID-19 swept the world into a pandemic, our health district administrator stepped down as governing board chair of a regional healthcare nonprofit. I was elected to fulfill the remainder of his term. In the midst of a flurry of public health emergency response supervened upon years of multi-faceted projects, I had to quickly learn the purpose and priorities of a board chair.
If you have the opportunity to step into a chair role, you’ll need to understand whatever procedural rules your group chooses to follow, with motions, seconds, discussion, and voting—how to facilitate “order.” You can find that guidance easily elsewhere. Beyond that, you must maximize accountability and engagement every way you can; empower all voices. Almost nothing is more important than this function, and so I’ll elaborate.
Here are a few pointers on how to run a board meeting, or most any decision-making meeting.
#1: Board decisions are formal and drive business activity. Therefore, decisions must be crystal clear. It is largely the role of the chair to facilitate achievement of clarity. Clarity often must be hard-won. A chair has a significant role in tracking elements of and threads within board or committee discussion and occasionally summarizing themes in ways that aim toward cultivating consensus. A skillful chair ensures there is time proactively planned and nurtured for the discussion necessary to achieve sufficient clarity before a motion is brought to a vote.
When board or committee members are well-informed and clear-headed by the time a motion is brought to a vote, much good can result and much confusion, angst, and misguided effort may be avoided.
#2: A chair must be an excellent timekeeper who negotiates schedule adjustments in the course of keeping the business of meetings running smoothly. This works best if there has first been careful time planning for the agenda ahead of the meeting, and if the chair has conducted at least a bit of mental rehearsal.
#3: It is the responsibility of the chair to promote well-rounded engagement. One opinion or perspective must not be presumed as a consensus, unquestioned; drawing out constructive debate, within guardrails, often adds value. If some members are quieter, assume they have valuable perspective that will benefit discussion and find constructive ways to ensure their perspective is surfaced. If the chair is aware of one member having a strong yet unvoiced opinion counter to the prevailing voices of the moment, with careful tact and diplomacy, a chair might prompt that one board member to speak up in a way that rounds out the discussion.
#4: If the dynamics taking place in a board or committee discussion are becoming concerning or discussion is going long, a chair must mediate arguments – not to control the discussion but to keep order, to act as a neutralizing force when helpful, and to keep things moving along.
#5: In virtual meetings, meeting engagement benefits when a chair establishes virtual meeting etiquette. Encourage, or require, sharing video feeds so that board members can see one another, maximizing perception of visual, nonverbal cues. Ensure someone is watching comments in the chat box and virtual “raised hands.” A chair must sometimes manage background noise of participants by asking them to self-regulate their “muting” and “unmuting” of microphones. And a chair can “mute all” as a nuclear option, if need be.
#6: When time to proceed forward, a chair should lead the group forward. It is easy to become stuck in vicious or else unconstructive cycles of discussion and debate. More than anyone else, the chair has authority and should be prepared to unstick, tactfully and facilitatively.
#7: Some organizations routinely invite key staff members to attend and occasionally report out at board meetings. A situationally aware chair notices and capitalizes on valuable opportunities to enable staff members to speak about issues within their area of responsibility and expertise. This is important not so that the board may better dictate operational decisions but so that a more nuanced understanding of operational strengths and challenges may inform strategic decisions. Occasionally calling on a guest community member may also add significant value; that is, context of strengths and challenges that impact the organization may well impact strategic opportunity and inform well-calibrated strategic decision-making. This may be true as well, at times, of committees.
#8: A wise chair does not underestimate the value of silence and deference as a facilitative force. There is a gravity in the authority of the chair, and that gravity will often exert unseen force upon board or committee members in ways that result in unnecessary deference to the chair. The chair’s role is primarily facilitative; therefore, to the extent a chair is highly communicative, there remains an elevated risk of suppressing engagement of board members. This may be counterintuitive.
Such dynamics often play out below the level of common perception. A strong chair will remain attuned to these subtle dynamics and take appropriate care to maintain a facilitative posture that seeks to promote balanced engagement with the established agenda—for boards, typically driven by an executive committee. This means refraining from behaviors which push the chair’s own agenda.
#9: Finally, chairs would be wise to avoid unrealistic expectations or displays of their own wit or erudition. There are talented, committed, and supportive folks involved in boards and many types of committees which, as a collective, bring together subject matter expertise and even the diversity of personal styles that are necessary to support and enrich healthy and successful board and committee processes.
While an under functioning chair may stymie the progress of good work, a charismatic or self-promoting chair poses similar liability, and may inadvertently or even intentionally suppress other board or committee members. And while a chair should ultimately play an instrumental role in clarifying and progressing strategic priorities, a chair does not need to be an expert on everything; in fact, does not need to be an expert on anything.