Board Leadership: Top Tips For First-Time Chairs

Being a Chair requires an understanding of when and how to act and an awareness of what the company and its board needs from you. This means striking the right balance between leading the board, ensuring the obligations to investors and stakeholders are understood and met and being a critical friend to the CEO. The switch from Exec or Non-Exec to Chair often requires a shift in mind-set.

Stephen Mitcham spoke to our Dynamic Boards NED Community about his own experience and what shaped his thinking as a Chair going into it for the first time. Here are some top tips on how to make a positive impact as a first-time Chair.

You can watch the full video here:  

Learn From Past Experiences

“Whenever you go into a new role, you always draw on your past experiences. The big thing I’ve found is that you just pick up on what you’ve seen other people do well and you undoubtedly will keep some things and reject others,” says Mitcham. Carving out some time for honest self reflection and benchmarking yourself against the best Chairs you’ve worked with will stand you in good stead for your new challenge. Think about the qualities that made them successful in the role and how you can incorporate these areas into your own leadership style. It can also be useful to assess their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Being mindful of what they didn’t do so well means you can make a conscious effort to learn from their mistakes.

Show You Care

As a new Chair, it’s important to spend some time getting to know everything you can about an organisation and its people. A part of this is understanding how the company wins and retains its customers and how it makes money. Being passionate about the organisation you represent, putting the time in to learn as much as you can about it, and taking pride in your work, will set a positive example for your team to follow. 

It’s worth taking some time to study previous board minutes as they can provide you with some key nuggets of information about an organisation and the board. Revisiting the last 12 months of board minutes and looking at what has previously been discussed, challenged and concluded, will give you some insight on what the board has seen as its priorities previously and how it’s made decisions in the past. You may also gauge something about the culture of the board as well. 

“Every Chair that I have respected and I thought did a good job really cared about the business and its people. It exuded from every pore in their body,” reflects Mitcham. “For me, they were the people that understood the mission and the vision of the business really well. They didn’t just parachute in once a month and impose themselves onto the business, they tried to live and be that business,” he adds.

Get The Most Out Of Your Team

“When you take on the role of Chair, you are given a team to work with. You don’t pick your team. You have this group of (hopefully) diverse individuals and it’s your job to ensure you get the most out of them,” says Stephen Mitcham. This requires you to learn your individual board members’ skill-sets, personalities, and optimal working conditions.

As Chair, you must ensure that every board member feels connected and engaged. One way of doing this is to assign everyone on the board a role and to create an environment that empowers everyone to speak. In any group, there will always be more dominant voices that risk overpowering the quieter individuals, but as Chair, your role is to make sure everyone has their voice heard. 

Board members that feel comfortable in their surroundings will be more likely to offer their opinions freely. Having cliques developing on the board can alienate individuals, create toxicity and quickly erode a positive and safe environment. “It may sound like a small thing but it can be so dispiriting for people if, after every meeting, there are little groups going off and plotting and I do think part of the Chairman’s role is to stamp that out,” agrees Mitcham.

Set Clear Expectations

Having clear expectations and direction will empower each board member to do their best work and feel more invested. It’s essential as a Chair to articulate to the board what you expect from them. This includes imposing and encouraging that the simple things are being done properly. This includes ensuring that board members arrive promptly and ready for meetings. “You go to so many meetings where people haven’t read the papers and they are not actually prepared for the meeting,” says Mitcham. “I expect discipline on the board. You’ll be amazed at how many times you go to a meeting and someone rolls in either dead on time, or five minutes late, and the disruption that has to the meeting,” he adds.

Build Trust With The Chief Executive

The Board Chair-CEO relationship sets the tone in the boardroom and is critical to success. “If the Chief Exec and the Chairman can’t get on and can’t speak freely, I think the business is in a very difficult position,” says Mitcham. 

As Chair, it is essential to be proactive in creating a strong relationship with the CEO built on a mutual trust for one another. You may not necessarily agree on everything but having a unified approach will help ensure you are working to achieve the organisation’s goals.

Be Open To Change

There isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to being a Chair. You have to be prepared to adapt your style to the company you are serving. Every board is different. Mitcham, who was used to working in a very formal, regulated industry, which required meticulous record-keeping, recalls the moment he joined the board of a creative and entrepreneurial IT business. The meetings were much more of a free-format than he had encountered previously. “It wound me up massively and I found it really difficult to go to, what I thought were, disorganised meetings,” he admits. However, when he tried to impose the same disciplines as his previous board, it didn’t work. “I realised I was stifling innovation,” he says. As a result, Mitcham adapted his style, identifying that a new approach was required to achieve success.

Be Ready To Act

As a Chair, you’ll need to be prepared to make tough decisions. If you have a fractious board, for example, caused by constant conflict between members that cannot be resolved, this can negatively impact a company’s performance. “You can’t let that fester for too long. You have to do something about it,” says Mitcham. In this case, you would need to be prepared to let some people go. “Being a Chair isn’t always fun. You do sometimes have to do things that other people wouldn’t want to do,” agrees Mitcham.

Understand The Power Of Your Words

Remember that your word is very powerful to the Exec. As Board Chair, you have influence on the organisation so it is important to be aware of what you say at all times. A throwaway comment can easily be misinterpreted as a serious suggestion. “Don’t be surprised if you say something on a strategy day and later in the year find your suggestion being put forward,” warns Mitcham. 

Find Balance

A successful Chair will find the sweet-spot between managing their relationships with the business owners, shareholders and the CEO. “You’re there to make sure that you have an achieving and delivering Chief Executive. You’ve got to make sure you have content owners because having discontented owners is very bad for the business. At the same time, in part of that sweet-spot, you’re trying to make sure that you have a coherent and productive board of directors,” says Mitcham. 

So, any parting words from Mitcham on becoming a first-time Chair? “It’s not really that different to being a Non-Executive Director. Being a Chairman isn’t rocket science. It’s just about reworking the people skills that you’ve got and learning as you go along. I would sum it up as ‘quiet leadership”, he says.

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