Before you agree to become board chair, meet with the chief executive

Agreeing to take on the role of board chair is not something to be taken lightly, and there are many factors to be considered before you say “yes.” Without a doubt, however, one of the most important considerations is the relationship between the board chair and the chief executive. A well functioning board of directors and a happy chief executive will view their relationship as a real partnership, and, as board chair, it will be one of your most important responsibilities to manage that partnership successfully.

Before you agree to become board chair, take time to schedule a one-on-one conversation with the chief executive to learn what he or she wants from the board chair. This is not the same as the “how we work together” conversation that you’ll want to have later. Rather, it is a time for you to ask questions and do a lot of listening so you can make an informed decision about becoming the chair. You might be surprised by what you learn!

Here are some questions to ask during your meeting with the chief executive:

  • Why should I say “yes” to taking on the role of board chair?
  • What do you think I can bring to the board and to the organization as chair?
  • What kinds of issues do you think will capture our attention during my term in office?
  • Can you anticipate any significant changes, initiatives, or events with which we’ll need to grapple?
  • What do you hope that we might accomplish together?
  • What kind of support will you need from me?
  • How likely is it that you might leave or retire while I’m the board chair?

Pick and choose the questions that seem like the best fit, but don’t hesitate to ask the last question. You want to avoid being surprised later, if possible.

The goal here is to get a better sense as to what to expect and what’s expected. It is a good thing if you find yourselves on the same page regarding the work to be done, and this is the best time to find out.

At the end of the day, your success as board chair will depend greatly upon how well you work together with the chief executive. That doesn’t mean that you always have to agree or be best friends—there is such a thing as healthy tension. But if you can clearly sense that you are not who the chief executive would have chosen for the job, or if you already know that you are going to be at odds right from the start, it may be time to reconsider. Tempestuous board chair and chief executive relationships can be hard on the organization and too often end when the chief executive walks out the door. Give this some careful thought.

As board chair you have to manage the board, but you also need to manage the board’s relationship with the chief executive. Make sure you are going to be comfortable with both management responsibilities before you say “yes” to taking on the role of board chair.

This is the 3rd in a series that Jeff Wahlstrom has written for board chairs. If you have questions or would like additional advice, you can contact Jeff at [email protected].