Focus on Boards: Nine questions to ask yourself before taking up the chair

The modern Chair needs to be prepared for some demanding challenges.

The modern Chair needs to be prepared for some demanding challenges.

In this first post in a series, Henslowe Irving Associate Maurice Ward takes a look at the role of the Board in a non-profit arts & culture organisation.

It’s often seen as an honour as well as a responsibility, but taking on the role of Chair of the Board of an arts organisation can throw up some significant challenges, even to an experienced board member. Here are nine questions to ask yourself before you accept or apply for the post of Chair.

1. What are your strengths and weaknesses in relation to management? You need to understand yourself and have a way of understanding the behaviours of others in the corporate context. Myers Briggs and Belbin provide useful indicators and ways of thinking.

The Board must be led – by you – to address the strategic issues and not dwell on detail

2. Do you naturally see the big picture and are not distracted by details?  It is easier for Board members to address the detail but the Board must be led – by you – to address the strategic issues and not dwell on detail.

3. Can you make the balance between what is logical and good for the organisation as opposed to what is good for individual people’s needs? Are you prepared to make those difficult decisions which may place the good of the organisation above the good of an individual or group?  You will have to deal with difficult situations with people, and may need to address issues with individual Board members. You need to be able to do this without getting too emotionally involved.

4. Are you opportunistic or planful and systematic? Your board must be not be made up of clones. Whichever your behaviour favours, ensure some of your Board member’s natural inclination is on the opposite side.  An organisation needs to be systematic and methodical in a non-bureaucratic way, make plans and stick to them but be flexible enough to take good opportunities along the way.

Be prepared to devote more time than you might initially expect

5. Do you have the time?  The role of the Chair is formally defined as running meetings but the reality is that the Chair often has to do a lot more including recruiting and managing the Chief Executive / Artistic Director and possibly some of the senior managers and some public relations tasks.  In tough times the Chair may need to up their time input significantly. So be prepared to devote more time than you might initially expect.

6. Can you evaluate risk and take the responsibility for taking calculated risks?  Boards tend to be risk averse and may need some encouragement to take risks, particularly if it is something the CEO/AD is passionate to do and may feel dis-empowered if refused.

7. Can you resolve conflict between people?  You will face situations where people are in conflict with one another and you will need to address the situation and bring about a resolution.  If you let these situations persist they become corrosive and will reduce the effectiveness of the Board and/or the organisation.

Good Chairs accept criticism without becoming defensive

8. Can you accept criticism without becoming defensive?  You need honest views from others about the organisation and your own performance.  You will not get this if people find it awkward to approach you.

9. Lastly, can you start out as you mean to carry on? Because you will carry on the way you started out.

Maurice Ward is an Associate Consultant with Henslowe Irving. He has over 35 years’ experience of leading in both small and large private and public sector organisations. He is currently Chair of the Maltings (Berwick) Trust which manages The Maltings Theatre & Cinema and Berwick Visual Arts in the UK town of Berwick-upon-Tweed.  He was formerly Head of Organisational Development for the UK National Health Service Information Authority and has served on numerous boards including Amnesty International (UK).

“This series of articles is intended for those embarking upon the task of chairing or considering doing so.  It is assumed that most readers will have experience of being on Boards. There will be those who are natural-born Chairs, who may get by with charisma alone, so all or most of this will be unnecessary.  I am not a natural so I had to learn it.

The advice in this series of articles comes from a combination of formal management education, experience, making mistakes and the downside of not heeding the good advice of others.  All the advice comes from practical use and experience and not what management books or consultants tend to suggest which is often a sledge hammer to crack a walnut and is rarely fully implemented.  I use these ideas, tips and techniques on a daily basis.” – Maurice Ward

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