Keys to Becoming a Successful Board Chair
When Keith Wewe became chair of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) board in January of 2016, he was focused on finishing an initiative started by the previous board — the regionalization of the association. It was a somewhat controversial initiative because it meant the elimination of local chapters.

The process helped Wewe understand one of the most important things about being a successful board chair. “When you get into contentious situations, keep in mind that the person who you're speaking with, who you may not agree with, is operating with good intent. It makes those conversations a lot easier and it helps produce a better outcome.”

Ultimately, the goal of the board chair is to ensure the participation of board members and facilitate productive discussions that drive the association forward. But getting there is not always easy. Becoming the association chair can be a daunting transition, even for those who have served on a board for a long time. We spoke to three recent board chairs who shared their advice and secrets to success.

Keith Wewe, Legal Marketing Association

Having served on the LMA board for 15 years, Wewe was about as qualified to be chair as possible. However, he found out that nothing prepared him for that first meeting as chair. “It's certainly different sitting in the board chair position than it is attending as a board member. Running a meeting requires a certain finesse and level of preparedness that I'm not sure anyone ever expects.”

A skill he quickly learned was the ability to read the board. Meetings are packed with agenda items and time is limited, but, inevitably, there are topics that require additional time and debate. Chairs need to know what those topics might be and leave enough time for discussion. That might mean skipping or delaying a planned break or working through lunch. “Providing enough time so that everyone can be heard ensures a high level of trust between the board chair and the board members,” said Wewe, the vice president of strategy and solutions at Content Pilot.

And while the board may not always agree inside the boardroom, it’s essential for board members to speak with a singular voice once they leave. “It gives credence to an initiative if we’re all speaking in a similar language and headed in the same direction,” he said. Further, it’s critical that the board chair and the executive director are in complete alignment. “I cannot give enough advice on how important it is to be in constant communication around all initiatives with the executive director. These two individuals need to be working hand in hand — both during and after every board meeting and on every initiative.”

Claudia Zacharias, Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE)

Claudia Zacharias, currently in her second one-year term as board chair of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), brings a unique perspective to the seat. In her “day job” she’s CEO of another nonprofit, the Board of Certification/Accreditation (BOC). “In my work at BOC with my own board chair, I recognize the things he does that are helpful to me as CEO,” said Zacharias. Having sat on both sides of the leadership table, she fully understands the role each plays. “The board chair should wear a hat that says ‘what’ and the executive director should wear a hat that says ‘how,’” she said. In other words, the board should be focused on strategy — the what — while the executive director focuses on operational implementation — the how.

Another best practice Zacharias embraces is that all board communication with the staff goes through the executive director and all staff communication to the board goes through the board chair. “You don't want a board member calling the marketing manager with marketing ideas or unintentionally piling work on the staff. Funneling everything through the proper channel can prevent that problem,” she said.

She also recommends a “no surprises” rule. In other words, the executive director and the board chair work hard to avoid surprising one another. If another board member is unhappy about something, Zacharias will let the executive director know so she’s not blindsided. Likewise, the executive director will let Zacharias know if staff is upset about something that could bubble up at a meeting. Further, Zacharias uses a “wisdom circle” — a group of board colleagues she confers with before bringing major issues to the full board. “There is a temptation for the chair to operate unilaterally. If I detect an issue brewing, or I’ve had requests for a discussion that I'm not sure the full board needs to discuss, I like to run things by a few other board members.”

Also, she advises chairs not to focus excessively on their own agenda at the expense of ongoing projects. “Everyone has their own things that they're passionate about. I try to infuse those passions into what's already going on rather than starting numerous new initiatives.” Zacharias also said chairs should give board members the opportunity to grow professionally by encouraging them to serve on committees or lead discussions in areas where they want to grow. “Try to make the experience as professionally rewarding for your fellow board members as you can.”

Nancy Kavazanjian, U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance

Nancy Kavazanjian admits that it was a bit daunting when she was first named board chair of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. She was only the second board chair the association had ever had and she was following a strong leader who had been in that seat for four years. “I knew that I had these huge shoes to fill,” Kavazanjian said.

She was also working with a new CEO who had been hired just before Kavazanjian became chair in 2015. Previously, the alliance had not had a CEO, so the board chair basically played the CEO role and was also responsible for the alliance’s operations.

To get off on the right foot in this new era for the organization, Kavazanjian suggested an offsite leadership retreat for her, the CEO, the executive director and the vice chair. “Those two days really set the stage for a successful partnership.” They discussed expectations, leadership styles and other topics that set the new administration in motion.

She also consulted with the vice chair and the five-member executive board to get their feedback on key issues. That was a critical step, considering that the board members didn’t have a lot of input under the past board chair. “It's important that the entire board is involved so they feel like it's their organization. They shouldn’t feel like they are being told what to do by somebody from up high. Having a participatory board was very important to me.” It set the stage for two successful one-year terms in 2015 and 2016.

One of her mantras is listen, not dictate. “As board chair, you don't have all the answers and you shouldn't go into it thinking you do. You can't push them. You have to figure out what they're thinking and together get to the right decision for the organization.”
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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