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Planning for board leadership transitions

Have you ever been frustrated that, by the time you get in a good rhythm with your current board chair, it’s time for a new board chair to start?

How much time do you spend keeping your board chair focused on top priorities?

The relationship between the chief executive and the board chair is one of the most important for any arts or culture organization.

Although some organizations have lengthened the terms of their board leadership, many change board leaders every one or two years.

Rotating board leadership this quickly may make it easier to find people willing to serve in that role, but it also means the chief executive must continually be building a relationship with, and adapting to, a new board chair.

That can be exhausting or take your focus off other important needs.

And that’s because board chairs come with many different skills and in different life stages.

Some have full-time jobs while others are retired or are a full-time community volunteer.

Some may have deep and longstanding ties to key players while others may not be as connected.

Some have already been a board chair for another nonprofit or this may be the first board they have ever led.

In the fifteen years I was an orchestra CEO, I had eight different board chairs. I’d like to share some tips on how to make those leadership transitions as smooth as possible.

As the chief executive, you are uniquely qualified to help your board chair have a successful term.

Think of yourself as your board chair’s chief of staff.

The person who makes sure the right things are getting the attention they need, that distractions are minimized, and that the business of the board and organization runs smoothly.

There are a lot of decisions that need to be made by a new board chair. It may also take your new board chair a little time to settle in to the role.

While it may be easier to make unilateral decisions, there is a fine line between doing the job of the board chair and being a trusted partner with the board chair.

To keep the board from losing momentum during the leadership transition, I met with the incoming chair several weeks before the start of their term to talk through the next year.

The first item on the agenda was to share my understanding of their responsibilities as board chair.

I want to emphasize the words “my understanding.”

Starting the conversation from that perspective kept it from sounding like I was telling the new board chair what their job was.

It provided a natural opening for them to share if they had a different viewpoint.

And if they had a different viewpoint, we talked about those differences to, ideally, come to a mutual consensus.

Next, I covered a brief list of questions that helped get the new fiscal year off to a strong start.

First, we would schedule the date for the new board member orientation.

Next, I shared when board committees have traditionally met, and asked if any changes were expected.

Depending on your governance structure, you may want to talk through who will chair other board committees.

We would agree on how often the board chair and I should meet and then set a regular time for that meeting.

Finally, we talked through our expectations of each other.

For my part, I had a list of promises I made to every board chair:

  • To never withhold important information from them – no matter how difficult it might be to share.

  • To do my best to make sure they weren’t surprised by something in a meeting.

  • To respect their time as a volunteer by being prepared for our meetings.

The bottom line is the most difficult leadership transitions are usually the ones where assumptions are made, and expectations are not clear.

Having your own process can provide a way to ensure details don’t fall through the cracks during board leadership transitions and help you start on the right foot with a new board chair, whoever they may be.

There is an art to doing this well.

Developing the skills needed to adapt to different board chairs is sometimes difficult to do on your own.

I would be happy to help coach you through creating an onboarding process for a new chair, and how you can apply best practices around setting expectations with your board chair.

One final thought - Having a productive relationship between the board chair and the chief executive is the difference between your organization surviving and your organization thriving.

Let me know if I can help your team get there.


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