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The Essential Role of the Chief Elected Officer
By Henry S. Givray, Chairman of the Board, SmithBucklin

The role of chief elected officer for a volunteer-governed organization is referred to as president or chair in an association’s bylaws. A chief elected officer is analogous to chairman of the board of directors of a corporation. For the purposes of this article, I use “chair” interchangeably with chief elected officer.

Though a board of directors comprises many members (anywhere from five to 15 or more), there is only one chair. This makes performance in that role not only unique but also highly impactful, positively and negatively. Below are guiding principles and considerations related to the role of board chair. I’ve based my insights and conclusions over 33+ years working with, for and on boards of both associations and corporations. Today, my learning and growth is related to my own role as chairman of the board of SmithBucklin (in a non-executive, non-employee capacity).
  • The person selected to become chair should be first among equals. He or she earned trust in all of its facets from other board members, volunteer staff, paid staff and members by eliciting confidence, establishing credibility, exemplifying integrity, gaining respect, and building loyalty.
  • The chair does not create and promote his or her personal agenda. Rather, the chair is the steward of the organization’s agenda and should embody its vision, mission, values, strategic priorities, and action plans. Of course, the chair plays an active and crucial participant role in helping create and, as appropriate and needed, update the organization’s agenda.
  • One of the chair’s most important and critical roles is to create and cultivate conditions for thoughtful deliberation, debate, advancement of ideas, and the surfacing and effective resolution of conflict — among and between board members as well as among and between board and staff. Similarly, they must nurture a climate of common expectations, trust, collaborative planning, joint evaluation, strong communication, and mutual respect.
  • The chair is “the communicator in chief,” constantly pushing and prodding to ensure clarity, context, avoidance of misinterpretation of intent, and transparency for deliberation, debate, decisions, and actions.
  • The chair continuously strives to build and maintain cohesiveness among the board, volunteer staff, and paid staff, thus helping to ensure that all parts of the organization connect and work in harmony.
  • The chair plays a direct and active role in leader volunteer succession.
  • The chair leads and serves as a role model in ensuring the board spends its time, energy, and heart on The Seven Things that Only a Board of Directors Can Do (see article from the September 2013 issue of Board Forward).
  • The chair embodies and unequivocally exemplifies the 12 Distinguishing Qualities of Great Leader Volunteers (see article from the November 2014 issue of Board Forward).
  • The chair ensures that the conditions and means are in place to allow for others — board members, volunteer staff, paid staff — to produce tangible outcomes in support and advancement of the organization’s vision, mission, values, strategic priorities, and action plans.
  • The chair plays a key role in assuring that a positive, productive experience is had by all board members. In this capacity, he or she must promote the continuous improvement of board members and the board as a whole. This can be achieved through annual, robust performance assessments that identify successes and opportunities to improve.
Just these ten requirements and expectations of a chair set a very high bar. And yet who can argue that if the chair is successful in delivering on these, the impact on the organization’s vitality and long-term success will be enormous and meaningful. How would it be possible for the chair to perform this essential and crucial role as outlined above if his or her available volunteer time, energy and heart weren’t “all in” to delivering on this promise and, as importantly, not doing things others can do? And if the chair does not play this crucial leadership role, who else would? Unfortunately, the answer is that no one else does or would, and that’s why so many organizations fail to deliver on their stated promise and potential.

  Henry S. Givray is Chairman and former CEO of SmithBucklin. He is a dedicated, ongoing student of leadership, committed to speaking and writing as a way to teach and give back. His insights and ideas on leadership have been prominently featured in business books and top national news media. One of Henry’s most enduring achievements has been his creation of intensive, high-impact leadership learning programs. Beginning with an internal opportunity for SmithBucklin employees, the programming has evolved to include two offerings. The SmithBucklin Leadership Institute is for board members of client associations, and Leadership’s Calling® is available to both top-performing SmithBucklin employees and the business and professional communities at-large.

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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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