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Every board needs a good leader. But often — at least for co-op start-ups — a board’s chair takes on this position without much time to prepare. Here’s a bit of guidance for anyone who wants to be a kick-ass board chair.
What a board chair does
Let’s start with the basics. In addition to the typical duties of a board member, the chair of the board provides leadership by taking on other important roles. They create meeting agendas, act as a liaison between the board and management, moderate the discussion at board meetings, and communicate with the public on behalf of the co-op.
This role has a big impact. How well a chair fulfills these duties can determine the board’s culture and the performance of the organization.
So if you want to be a great board chair and co-op leader, these tips can help you knock it out of the park.
Lead by example: be prepared
This is an often-overlooked tip that can make a massive difference to a board’s culture. While all directors should review their materials and be prepared to discuss issues at board meetings, the chair should lead by example and make sure they know the info inside and out.
Showing (rather than simply telling) other directors how to be prepared, and being ready to offer support and keep the discussion focused, goes a long way to making you a legitimate leader.
Be a Devil’s Advocate
It’s easy for boards that have worked together for a while to think alike and agree on most things. Boards should be cohesive, but if all members think alike and always agree, they can miss out on new ideas and perspectives or overlook details — something called groupthink.
A good board chair should look for opportunities to instigate debate and ask tough questions to introduce new perspectives to a conversation. Talking through issues and engaging in productive conflict is a sign of a healthy board – one that makes informed, well-thought-out decisions.
Listen to Others
The job of a board chair extends beyond what happens at meetings – they provide leadership to the organization more broadly. Great board chairs work closely with management, staff, and members to create an open and accessible atmosphere that encourages people to share their ideas.
Listening to those around you does wonders for the organization’s culture and ensures you make well-informed decisions. But be sure your engagement doesn’t become micromanagement; a board that meddles in tasks that should be left to management can be just as damaging as one that’s too hands-off.
Set High Ethical Standards
The best board chairs share an important character trait: integrity. As chair, people look to you for cues on how to handle sensitive information and difficult situations. Approaching all decisions with the goal of doing what’s right is the best policy.
Setting high ethical standards will not only earn you respect from your colleagues and the co-op’s members, it will minimize the legal and financial risks of the board’s decisions. Again, leading by example will help set the tone for the board and the organization, so don’t be afraid to raise personal concerns when discussing issues.
Perhaps the most important tip is to be authentic. Chairing a board shouldn’t be artificial. It’s important to be self-aware and understand where you can contribute, and when to rely on someone else’s expertise. Do what you feel is right, engage with the information, and encourage others to participate. People are naturally drawn to authenticity in a leader, so be yourself.
Help is Out There
Fortunately, there are plenty of supports out there for boards. The Co-op Creator has tools and resources to help boards make decisions and develop strong procedures.
For a deeper understanding of governance, including some of the challenges raised in this article, check out the free online course, Good Governance Matters. This course outlines a framework for governance developed by the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan.
Likewise, to help you re-examine governance in your organization and gain insights useful for rookie board chairs, try our Board Basics workshop.