Top governance tips for every new board chair

Becoming a chair for the first time is a transition moment in a board career. Not everyone is selected to be chair and it takes a specific set of skills to succeed. Being appointed to the chair can be a significant endorsement from your colleagues and shareholders. That said, it almost always means a greatly increased workload.

Many chairs say that it’s only when they are appointed that they realise how different the role is from their director colleagues. Chairing your first meeting is a significant moment and even directors with plenty of experience suddenly wonder what they should do.

“I’ve spoken to numerous first time chairs who suddenly feel a little at sea. You’re deploying a different skill set and taking on a role that is different from your peers at the board table. You might have watched a chair in action for years and taken it for granted, but the first day in the chair seat is a whole new one,” said Simon Arcus, Head of Governance for the Global Governance Initiative.

The chair position means that you assume a role as first among equals. You have responsibility for the agenda and the effective running of the meeting. You will be likely to be spending much more time with the CEO and management. Even though the chair is not there to manage the board members in the same way as an executive team, the board will look to you for leadership and direction.

So how do you make that first board meeting a success? Here are two tips for this critical moment to establish yourself as chair, set the ground rules for the future and start the meeting in winning form.

First, set your expectations for the board

As chair, you have the opportunity to establish the way you would like to see the board operating. It’s an opportunity to restate the rules of good governance, collective decision making and appropriate and respectful dissent. It might even be restating the good work of the previous chair.

While the ‘rules of the road’ might not be revolutionary it will communicate your position to the board and set the expectations for board conduct under your chairmanship. This may be especially important if the change between chairs is significant or the board has gone through an unsettled period.

Second, explain your style to the board

The board will be expecting a change in style. A powerful impact to your experience as chair is to explain your own personal style and how you intend to lead the board.

By explaining your approach to being a chair you will be setting a tone for your tenure leading the board and also take the board into your confidence. A sense of who you are, how you see the company and its achievements and your motivation for being there can be a very energising restatement of the purpose for the board.

Take a deep breath and enjoy the chair role! A winning start will set you up well for the future.

To find out more about Global Governance Initiative’s corporate governance courses for executives, directors and boards, see the course outlines here.


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Janine Sherringham
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