Board chairs are generally egregiously unprepared for the job.
That was a key finding of “Voices of Board Chairs, A National Study on the Perspectives of Board Chairs: How they prepare for and perceive their role in relation to the board,” from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s Governance Affinity Group.
Here is one important finding: 55% of chairs have fewer than three years on the board, with 16% having served less than one year.
Terrie Temkin, CoreStrategies for Nonprofits Inc. (954-985-9489; http://www.corestrategies4nonprofits.com), said preparations for developing the board’s top leader need to really begin at the board recruitment stage.
Does this happen at your organization? When a board member is “promoted” to chair without a proper onboarding and education process, the organization often finds itself six months later with a chair who can’t do the job, Temkin said. Here’s how to go about building a career ladder to develop competent leadership in the chair position:
- Start work on chair development early. Chair prep begins at onboarding. When the board recruits new members, it needs to view every person they recruit as having the potential to become a board chairperson. “That’s very important,” Temkin said.
To develop these types of high-quality individuals into board leaders, the board needs strategic programs for board orientation and ongoing board education. “Those are the programs that provide the background about the organization, the knowledge of the mission, the understanding of the community and the organization’s impact to board members,” Temkin said.
The orientation should also introduce board members to the governance function, the board’s job and how to do it well, she said.
“When the ongoing education provided covers these skills or dimensions of board service, people are far more knowledgeable and can use that knowledge in a way that strengthens them when they are in positions of leadership,” Temkin said.
After the onboarding occurs and with a strong education component in place, the organization then should identify early on the board members it wants to groom for board leadership positions.
- Provide those identified with opportunities to develop. Once the organization has selected an individual to groom for leadership positions on the board, he or she needs plenty of chances to grow and develop. This can occur through the opportunity to attend conferences, or through classes at a local community college or a United Way, for example, Temkin said.
“It would be great if this could be accomplished at the organization’s expense, because that would allow all potential leaders to have the experience regardless of their financial situation,” she said.
Realistically, some organizations are opposed to spending on board development philosophically and others won’t have the budget “but it sends a very important message that preparation and education are essential to you as a leader and to the future of the organization,” Temkin said.
For organizations with limited funds for board education, getting creative provides opportunities for board member development. “This can occur at each meeting, in the form of a quick quiz on a topic that gives people a chance to test themselves on what they know,” Temkin said. Other ideas:
Build a board leader “career ladder.” Building a career ladder for a talented board member requires the organization to provide the necessary opportunities for this individual to take on other leadership positions. This might be chairing a bylaws or planning committee, Temkin said.
- Program tours. Temkin knows of one cancer organization that takes board members to a research facility for tours of the labs where scientists are working on tissue.
- Visits to state legislators to work on advocacy. The CEO can make these initial introductions, Temkin said.
- Creating a board education calendar.
- Bringing in outside expertise.
- Opportunities for networking. Networking for board members can occur even within the organization—for instance, at a fundraising event, Philanthropy Day luncheons, a breakfast with leaders or a chamber function. The people your board member comes into contact with will begin to impart advice about how they handled issues when in a similar position, Temkin said. “That is invaluable,” she said.
“These types of opportunities are motivational and help an individual understand the issues at hand while getting excited about a leadership role,” she said.
“Those are two committees that would provide incredible background for a potential leader,” Temkin said.
Another option for career ladder building is to ensure those leaders being groomed have a chance to serve on all committees. “You want them to understand inside and out what it takes to run the organization and all of the issues involved,” Temkin said.
More options for building a career ladder for a board chair that are in the making:
- Have the individual take on key roles when the board is reorganizing or the organization is merging with another.
- Prepare a list of top educational resources for an incoming chair for the individual to review.
If during the course of career ladder building you sense a lack of enthusiasm or realize you have made the wrong choice, “stop feeding that horse and move onto someone else,” Temkin said. “You want someone who is excited about these opportunities. Those are your best leaders.”
Also, you may want to invest in coaching for your top leadership prospects, Temkin said, someone who has experience working with chairs, or a public speaking or meetings expert, if those topics present challenges to these individuals. This “coach” might be a past chair from your or another local organization, Temkin said.
Spend more time with your future leaders as CEO. The organization should offer opportunities for lunch or breakfast with the CEO to those board members it is grooming for board leadership, Temkin said.
“The past board chair or current chair can be involved here too,” Temkin said. “It’s an opportunity for everyone to discuss the wide range of topics affecting the organization.”
It’s also a great opportunity for a potential chair to ask questions of current leaders such as what they wish they had known before taking the position or which skills they wish had been developed more fully before taking on the job, Temkin said.