Best Practices for New Board Chairs
Even for those who have sat on association boards for years, there’s nothing that quite prepares you for that first meeting as the new board chair or, as the position is also called, chief elected officer. Here are some tips to help you be ready for that transition.

See the Big Picture. A new board chair should be careful about coming into the seat with a wish list of new initiatives they’d like to push. As a steward of the association, the focus should be on continuity and building upon the ongoing success of the organization, not on the chair’s individual legacy. New initiatives that are not aligned with the organization’s strategy can divert valuable time and resources away from achieving objectives. If every board chair came in with their own new projects, it would constantly stall momentum.

Get Everyone Involved. To foster healthy debate, consider letting others speak first on agenda items. When chairs or officers speak first, it can influence the direction of the conversation before it gets started, or stymie debate altogether. It’s better to have the most influential people listen to all the viewpoints first and then bring up their own perspectives as they work toward consensus. In this sense, the board chair is like the conductor of the orchestra, setting the tempo for the conversations.

Rules of Order. As board chair, you are tasked with working with the executive director on preparing the agenda and running the meeting. Basic procedural rules like how to make a motion, second a motion, call for a vote, or approve a measure may seem simple, but they can be confusing for those who have never run a meeting. While it’s important to brush up on Robert’s Rules of Order, following it to the letter is not necessary. The key is not to become an expert on Robert’s Rules, but to understand—and make sure others do too—the established process for how the board brings forth recommendations and ultimately makes decisions.

Strive for Consensus. One of the most important jobs of the chair is to bring the board to consensus around issues. While healthy debate around the board table is essential, the ultimate goal is to arrive at a solution the board can live with and support while avoiding group think. It’s not always easy to get consensus, but it’s something to constantly strive to achieve. It is also important to remember that not everyone on the board will always agree 100 percent with every decision, but that once the board makes a decision it should speak with one voice.

Know your strengths and weaknesses. Every board chair has strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know what they are and adjust accordingly. Don’t be afraid to delegate certain tasks to others if you feel they would handle them better than you would. Keep in mind that serving as board chair is a leadership and personal growth experience and, typically, people who serve in this role overcome their fears, strengthen their weaknesses, and thrive.

Finally, ask questions and learn from your predecessors, peers, and staff. Many associations give chairs a year to observe and prepare by serving as vice chair or chair-elect, which helps make the transition much smoother. But not all boards have that ramp-up period. Whatever the process is for your association, be proactive about your own learning so that you walk into the role fully prepared.
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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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