Issue 16

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BoardWorks International
Issue 16, 2015

Is There A Case For Having A 'Transitional Chair'?

It is arguable that the most important ingredient in effective governance is the capability and performance of the board leader. However, it is not uncommon for boards to rush - or be pushed - into the election of a board chair and, as a consequence, to make a poor choice.

Undue pressure is most likely to arise because the constitutions of many not-for-profit organisations require the board to meet and elect a chair straight after the Annual General Meeting. This is the time when the board is most likely to contain new and possibly inexperienced board members.

Is it right that the first challenge that will confront new board members is the need to cast a vote for the person who will be the leader of the board for at least the next twelve months? At this point new board members could be comparatively uninformed about a whole range of relevant considerations. By the same token, longer-serving board members may know little about the capabilities of their new colleagues.

When there is a change in board membership - even one member - there is a new board in place. It is almost certain, as the new board sits down for its first meeting, that there will not be a shared view among new and existing board members about, for example:

  • the challenges facing the organisation and the board;
  • whether these have changed since the board last elected its chair;
  • who is now, particularly given the changed composition of the board, the best suited person to chair the board;
  • who aspires to the role; and
  • how the dynamics of the board previously are likely to be affected by the changes in board composition.

If the choice of board leader is crucial (and when is it not?) requiring new board members to make a choice when they do not have this knowledge, is both premature and unfair.  They will be vulnerable to 'advice' (if not lobbying) from long-serving board members. The pressure to make an immediate choice will effectively exclude any new member of the board from being chosen to fill the role whatever their qualities.

It may also be unfair to longer serving board members who have an ambition to fill the role. For example, if support is split between alternative candidates, new members' votes carry a weight that is far greater than their confidence in making a choice.

The whole board could suffer from making a choice under time pressure that they may later regret but feel compelled to live with.

Given the importance of the choice, for the board to attempt to choose its leader at this stage in its development is, to say the least, unwise but what are the alternatives?

The best option could be to adopt a deliberate transition process led by an explicitly interim chair. If possible this would be someone who has no ambition to continue in the role so that there is no question of the interim chair gaining the 'inside running'.

There would be an agreed timetable for the election of the 'permanent' chair. This need not be long if the board is able to commit the time to a deliberate process of board formation that would, for example, give time for:

  • new members to be inducted;
  • the new board to define its objectives and to explore mutual expectations about the board's role and how it should operate;
  • board members to discuss the characteristics they would ideally seek in a leader and to begin to understand the leadership challenges facing their chair;
  • for the board to start to work together on tasks that would allow members with these characteristics to become more visible

It may even be appropriate to seek explicit expressions of interest from aspirants and interview them for the role.

What will work for different boards will vary according to their circumstances. I recently facilitated a two-day post-election workshop in which circumstances dictated that almost the whole board was new. There was effectively no continuity between the old and the new boards. It had been determined in advance that the first formal board meeting at which the board was obliged to elect a chair would not be held until after the workshop. During the two days of what was a combination of team building and direction setting, members had a chance to get to know each other and to explore both formally and informally how they wanted to work together.

During that time together two 'natural' board leaders emerged. The board acknowledged that reality and towards the end of the workshop explored their interest in the role. It turned out that while both 'candidates' were willing to take on the role, because of his other commitments, one was unable to commit as much time and attention as the other to the role. At the board's first formal meeting the selection process was informed and straight forward. It was fully supported by the whole board.

Not all boards will be in this situation but it is likely that variations on this process would be workable in most cases. The concept of a post-election board workshop prior to the first formal board meeting is the key here. It creates a sort of 'cooling off' period that allows everyone to become better informed. In symbolizing that there is a new board in place it puts all members of the board on the same footing. It is unlikely to require any constitutional change. If externally facilitated there will not even be the need to choose an interim chair.


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