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The very subtle job of leading the board

Aug 08, 2011 Business Daily, Leadership

“Today, greater professionalism is expected of a Chairman. S/he must possess a range of ‘soft skills’ and have the ability to coach new board members (especially executive directors); handle debates with skill; tease out concerns; orchestrate and unite an often disparate group; recruit the right people; and effect behavioural change where necessary. The chairman needs to make sure that certain topics are raised and put on the agenda at board meetings and that he has frequent contact with the non-executives to hear their concerns. In addition, the Chairman must act as a bridge between executives and non-executives despite the tendency for governance to push them apart; avoid the temptation to interfere; be familiar with the current issues; and be widely accessible to the board members and the shareholder community. On the whole, the Chairman’s role should be played in the background.”

DR DEBORAH SWALLOW, The Role of the Chairman (2005 White Paper)

I recently ran a programme for board chairpersons at Strathmore Business School. We were fortunate to have gathered an excellent group of chairs from leading regional institutions, to examine that very complicated question: what does a chairman actually do?

The paragraph shown summarizes the result of research into UK FTSE companies, and is quite revealing. It captures the unique role of the person who leads the board of directors. Take another look: it requires chairpersons to coach people; moderate debates; create unity; focus discussion on the right issues; manage change; counsel and advise; hire and fire – AND do all of that primarily in the background!

Strange as this sounds, it is correct.

The (non-executive) chairman of the board is very particular type of leader, and the peculiar nature of the role is not yet widely understood. Chairmen are leaders, yes – but they are first amongst equals. The chair is not, as is widely misconstrued in these parts, the ultimate commander-in-chief. The chair’s job is simply to chair the board – guide it in all its decisions, and articulate them.

Across East Africa we still suffer from the “do-you-know-who-I-am” kind of chairman – the one who thinks he is above the chief executive and the board and therefore calls all the ultimate shots. We see this often – the very aggressive chairman who treats the CEO like a flunkey, imagining a non-existent chain of command that allows him to bark orders and imagine that people serve at his pleasure. This is fallacious.

The board chair has a much more subtle role, which is to guide and manage the highest decision-making organ of the entity – the board of directors. The chair’s primary role is not to lead – it is to create the conditions for leadership. It is be an enabler, a fixer, someone who smooths the way and allows good leadership and decisions to happen where they are needed.

That is a very different animal from the one who shouts commands from the front of the field.

Chairing a board is a highly nuanced undertaking. It requires someone who understands people and their motivations, and can draw out the best from them. Someone who can see the big picture, and not allow directors to spend all their time on trivia. Someone who can coach a team into functioning well. Someone who can create unity and harmony rather than camps and divisions.

On top of all that, a chair must only step into the spotlight when needed – not hog all the airtime.

That is why boards must select their chairs with great care and wisdom. This is clearly not a job for everyone, and must not be based on seniority and rotation. The set of skills it requires is not widely available, and boards must groom and select chairs with great discernment. A bad chair can cause great disruption, as many a board has found to its cost.

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