The Board Chair Question: Are you ready to say yes?Mindy R. Wertheimer, Ph.D., LCSW | May 2014
Deciding whether to take on board chair responsibilities is not a casual decision, requiring of a candidate thorough contemplation and many honest conversations.
One of your best resources when guiding your board chair candidate through this decision—or any other board-related work—is the collective expertise at BoardSource. In The Board Chair HandBook (Third Edition), author Mindy R. Wertheimer helps board chairs understand and carry out their role for the good of the organization.
In this excerpt, Wertheimer offers potential board chairs a way to evaluate themselves before taking on such a significant role for your organization.
In “saying yes,” you will want to evaluate what the decision to become board chair means to you and your significant others — including family, friends, and professional colleagues — and how this new responsibility will affect your daily life. Most of us take on a board chair role in addition to, not in place of, everything else we do in our professional and personal worlds. A personal reflection exercise will help you see yourself in the chair role, decide how you will balance the job with competing responsibilities, and evaluate your support system. Answering these questions will enable you to go forward with confidence and support and identify challenges to be addressed. Take the time to discuss your thoughts with close significant others. Being a board chair is a major commitment, but it should not consume your life. Be cognizant of achieving and maintaining a balance. You can also use this exercise six months to a year in as board chair to reassess expectations against realities, check your support system, and reflect on your self-care.
Personal Reflection Exercise
• Why do I want to take on this role at this time?
• What does the organizations expect from me?
• What do I expect from the organization?
• What do I expect from myself?
• What can I contribute to the organization? To the community?
• How will I balance my board chair responsibilities with my personal and professional responsibilities.
• How do my significant others feel about me taking on this role?
• How will this role affect my time with family, with friends, and at work?
• Do I have an effective support system in place?
• What do I need to do to maintain my physical and mental health as I add this role to my daily life?
Personal Support System
Our decisions have ramifications forothers in our lives, so in becoming a board chair, it’s important to check in with those who form your personal support system. For example, you may decide that your career is on sound footing and you have reached the point in your professional life where you have more time to pursue volunteer leadership opportunities. But your spouse or partner, who has been very supportive throughout your career, may look forward to spending more time together sharing the daily routine of maintaining a household or doing more traveling. By engaging in self-reflection coupled with discussion with significant others, you’ll build a checks-and-balances system that requires reciprocal communication and shared meaning. A person may assert that one’s partner is “supportive,” but how does each define support, and what does support look like to each person? How are personal assumptions used in setting expectations? Have all parties come to a shared meaning? Ultimately, candid communication allows you to return to self-reflection and check your initial ideas, assumptions, and generalizations. By remaining open to feedback and discussion with others, you can uncover new information with which to alter, if necessary, your initial responses to the posed questions.
Being a board chair is a major commitment, but it should not consume your life. Be cognizant of achieving and maintaining a balance.
If you have been asked to serve as board chair, you probably have at least one strength that others consider an asset or resource for the board and the organization. Through self-reflection and talking to others, you can identify your assets and areas that might benefit from improvement.
A board chair does not need to be an expert on everything. The board is a team, and everyone brings different strengths to the table. However, a chair must have passion as well as integrity. Relationship and leadership skills can develop over time, but should be built on the skills an individual already brings to the board chair leadership role. One incoming board chair commented that his strength is focusing on and completing tasks, but a challenge is taking the time to nurture relationships. He hoped to have a vice-chair with relationship skills to balance his focus on tasks. It’s not a crime not to know; it’s a crime to pretend that you do know.
Board Chair Reminders
• Talk to key organizational leaders and donors to learn more about specific board chair roles and responsibilities, the current work and future direction of the organizations, and others' perceptions of the organization.
• Think about how saying yes to serve as chair may affect your relationships at home, at work, and at leisure. Ask for support from your personal support system—be specific in defining what you may need and be sure show reciprocity.
• Take an inventory of personal strengths and limitations, and build on this self-awareness to maximize strengths and address limited skills and knowledge areas.
Mindy R. Wertheimer is the author of The Board Chair Handbook (3rd ed.), published by BoardSource. She is the director of the MSW program and clinical professor in the School of Social Work at Georgia State University.