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Leadership Lessons From the Intentional Chair

February 1, 2018

Posted in: WATSON Views

February 1, 2018
Letter #3

Dear Chair,

Every board is unique. Sector, organization, strategy and directors around the table guarantee no two boards are alike. Yet, when it comes to leadership, many new chairs may have more in common than they think. There are aspects of the chair role that consistently trip up new chairs. And although effective leadership can be learned in a classroom, the best teacher is experience.

Here are five leadership challenges Intentional Chairs have learned the hard way. Learn from their experience in the boardroom.

1. Thinking you need to have all the answers

No one expects you to know it all overnight. In fact, experienced chairs are the first to admit that they don’t have all the answers, even after years in the role. A great chair doesn’t need to have all the answers, but they do need a process to get to the right outcome. Intentional Chairs have confidence in their ability to seek good information but also understand that they are part of a team and can rely on their team for information, support and guidance.


  • Reflect on what you need to know and know who to ask – whether it’s the former chair, CEO, committee chairs or experienced chairs in your network
  • Establish norms around two-way dialogue between meetings with key governance players to ask questions and test ideas
  • Engage external experts when needed to fill out knowledge gaps

2. Doing things the way they were done before

It’s easy to take on a chair role and pick up where your predecessor left off. They did a fine job, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… right? Not quite. Even if things aren’t broken, part of the purpose of chair renewal is to bring in a fresh perspective and new ideas. At the same time, great chairs don’t come in and do things differently for the sake of change.


  • Observe, listen and reflect; use this knowledge to make thoughtful, informed (and sometimes incremental) changes. Take meeting materials for example: ask directors what worked well and didn’t work well in the past and propose changes to address past issues and get to the root of what the board wants to accomplish with its limited time.
  • Set goals for the upcoming year that will help the board move forward in a focused manner

3. Being too forgiving

Bad board behaviour and dysfunction can quickly spiral and spread. Chairs don’t always have the luxury of settling into the role before dealing with these challenging issues.


  • Work with the board to set clear expectations for directors
  • Put your emotional intelligence to the test and proactively address issues and diffuse damaging dynamics before they emerge

4. Not ending a conversation when it has run its course

One of the trickiest things to balance as a chair is allowing fulsome discussion and dialogue without letting a conversation continue past the point of diminishing returns. People need to feel heard. As chair, you need to ensure all issues, risks and alternatives are sufficiently fleshed out and all questions are satisfactorily addressed. However, when the conversation starts to go around in circles, it is time to call it.

Knowing when to end the conversation is only half the battle. The other half is knowing how to end the conversation. Conversations usually conclude in one of two ways – a decision is made (preferably by consensus) or a specific plan is put in place to do something before making a decision. The latter may involve assigning a person or group to investigate the issue further, gather more information, or develop options and recommendations, within a specified timeframe.


  • Guide the conversation and apply your insight to focus or broaden the discussion, as needed
  • Practice active listening to summarize multiple points of view
  • Use the further investigation option sparingly, as it can be an easy way to avoid making a hard decision

5. Not understanding the line between governance and operations – in practice

Most directors understand the line between governance and operations in theory; however, it is one of the most difficult practices to apply in the boardroom.

The chair must be cognizant of the line and play a role in drawing the line. Intentional Chairs leverage the line and their relationship with the CEO to foster an “us and us” connection between the board and management. Great chairs don’t shy away from talking about the line, recognizing its dynamic nature and the need to shift the line in different circumstances.


  • Clarify expectations, respective roles and guiding principles for the board – management relationship and within the board itself
  • Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when the conversation is too operational and needs to be brought back up above the line

And so brave chair, I hope these words of wisdom and tips will make your transition to your new role easier. You have taken on a great challenge. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, the best learning comes from experience. The missteps of new chairs stem from human nature and are mitigated through experience and the humility and confidence that come from it. But, with any luck, being alert to these common challenges will prepare you to face them boldly and confidently if and when the time comes.


Yours sincerely,

The Intentional Chair

The Intentional Chair is the collective voice of over 30 exceptional chairs who kindly shared their insights, thoughts and experiences with WATSON in support of our passion for real, practical governance learning.

Hone your chair skills and join your peers at one of WATSON’s 2018 Chair with Intention™ courses