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The Broken Chair

February 4, 2021

Posted in: WATSON Views

Think about the chair at the head of your boardroom table. Is it shiny and new with lots of useful features? Is it ergonomic, designed perfectly to fit your needs? Is it a bit old and rusty but comfortable? Or is it broken? Maybe it came that way, or maybe it’s worn down and no longer serves its purpose. But it’s still there.  

What do you do when your board chair is no longer serving your board?

One thing has become clear over the past few decades, the role of the board chair is complex and demanding. Once seen as a figurehead role focused on facilitating meetings and liaising with the CEO, the role has evolved to include a breadth of responsibilities: planning the forward agenda, ensuring the right information is before the board, framing key issues for board decision or oversight, orchestrating the strategic planning process, nurturing relationships with stakeholders, and fostering a healthy board culture.

As the demands of the chair role grow, so do the expectations we hold for the individuals who choose to take it on. The role requires a significant commitment of time and energy and a broad set of skills and experience from facilitation and meeting design, to EQ and consensus-building.

So back to the question – what do you do when your chair isn’t quite cutting it? It’s a challenging situation to navigate but given the importance of the role it’s critical to do something.

First, try to understand the root cause of the issue. Is the chair overstretched and unable to commit the time needed to the role? Is the chair inexperienced and perhaps unaware of what is expected of them in the role? Would they benefit from training or mentorship? Have they been in the role for too long? Has their performance dropped recently, or has it always been an issue? Are they showing signs of burnout?

Then, look to your practices to see if there is already a framework or tool in place that might help assess or improve the chair’s performance, or potentially set the stage for transition if the chair is underperforming. Do you have a chair position description? Do you have term limits in place for the role? Do you have a chair evaluation built into your board or director evaluation process? Do you have a budget to support chair training and development?

Based on your situation, there are several potential courses of action:

  • Conduct a chair evaluation. One of the best ways to get a balanced sense of the chair’s performance and highlight strengths and opportunities for improvement is through a chair evaluation process. Often this is done as part of a board or director evaluation; this can help take the attention off of the chair and put the feedback in the broader context of continual board-wide improvement. A chair evaluation is a fair, neutral way to assess chair performance, offer constructive feedback, and provide an opportunity for the chair to act on the feedback. A chair evaluation process often involves an in camera debrief of the remaining directors to discuss chair performance and align on key messages – this is an opportune time to discuss and align on a shared view of chair performance. In an ideal situation, boards have a regular practice of chair evaluation as part of their annual calendar so it doesn’t feel reactive to a particular situation (and, so your chair benefits from great feedback on an regular basis).
  • Invest in chair development. If your chair’s performance feels related to a lack of clarity on the role and expectations, or a lack of support, consider whether they would benefit from mentorship, education, or professional development to support them in their role. Especially in smaller organizations with less formal governance practices, a lack of role clarity can result in misaligned expectations. And in any organization, inexperienced chairs “don’t know what they don’t know” and benefit from chair training to understand the role and what is expected of chairs today. Start from a point of understanding and support the chair to ensure they have the tools to succeed.
  • Have the conversation. The conversation will look different depending on the situation, dynamics, and relationships. Depending on your relationship with the chair, it might be a conversation with them directly, focused on how they are feeling, asking if they need support, or trying to understand why their performance has changed. If you don’t have a relationship with the chair that would allow you to have this conversation, consider who might have the relationship, credibility, and soft touch to have this critical conversation (for example, the vice chair or governance committee chair). Share your observations and concerns with this person, focusing on facts and specific examples, not personality or hunches. Give them time to process and think about how they might address the situation, and what information or support they might need.
  • Go back in time. Hindsight is 20/20. If you find yourself in a situation where it feels like there is no clear course of action, consider what structures or mechanisms would have been beneficial and ensure they are put in place going forward. Consider what makes sense for your organization in terms of chair term limits, a clear role description, a chair succession process, mentorship from a previous chair, a regular chair evaluation, or a chair development budget. Look to the future and build practices to ensure there is a pipeline of qualified leaders who are clear on the role and able to add value in the future. Don’t wait until things are broken to put good process in place.

Where you go from here will depend on the nature of the issue, the chair’s plans, and your governance framework and processes. In most cases, chair transition will come naturally – most chairs know when they are not performing at their best and want the best for the organization, which in some cases means transition. In other cases, high quality feedback, role clarity, and support are powerful tools to course correct. Regardless of the situation, make sure to approach it with tact, empathy, and kindness, starting from a point of understanding and working towards a solution together. The role is difficult and can be lonely – sometimes a chair needs a little support to manage the load.