How much should the board chair talk?

During a board meeting, the chair plays several roles, including master of ceremonies, facilitator, moderator, and participant. It is with the last of these that there can be confusion. More than once I’ve heard board chairs say, “I’m not sure if it is appropriate for me to talk now.” The short answer is, “It is.” As board chair, you have the right and responsibility to contribute to the discussion and to express your opinions clearly and openly. How, when, and how much is what you need to consider.

Let’s look at the different roles to see what is expected of the board chair:

Master of ceremonies – Like the host of the Academy Awards, you are responsible for launching the meeting, letting people know what to expect, introducing presenters and their topics, ensuring the meeting doesn’t get off-track or run too long, helping to smooth over the rough spots, and providing some concluding remarks. A well-constructed agenda that shows how much time is allotted to each portion is what you use to guide the meeting.

Facilitator – Linked to your role as master of ceremonies is your responsibility as a meeting facilitator. As such, you are helping to prompt good discussion, ensure participation by all (and not just a few), encourage questions, and bring resolution to each agenda topic. Encouraging the board’s participation is the essential part of this responsibility.

Moderator – With some topics you’ll want to encourage healthy debate and ensure that opposing views get aired. It takes some careful work to make sure all voices are heard—not just the loudest or strongest. Ultimately, however, you will need to help the board reach a decision, even if that decision is to agree upon a process for reaching a decision at a future meeting.

Participant – By becoming board chair, you have not stopped being a board member. You need to weigh-in during discussions and express your own opinions. As chair, you can be certain that your board members are going to want to know how you feel, and your opinions on matters are sure to carry weight, so the timing of your comments needs to be considered carefully.

When it comes to the timing of your participation in board discussions, there are no hard and fast rules. After framing the issue, letting them know how much time there is for discussion, and suggesting what you hope the outcome will be (a decision, a recommendation, a referral to a committee, etc.), it is up to you to decide when to jump in and express your own viewpoint. To help encourage discussion, you may want to play the role of facilitator for a while, prompt questions, and listen to others before offering your own opinion. However, if you go into the discussion possessing background information and perspective that the rest of the board does not have, it would be a mistake not to share that with the board at the start. If you hold-out information until the end, or dole it out in small doses during the discussion, you will only frustrate your board and leave them feeling as if their time has been wasted.

Be aware of the different roles you must play in order to ensure a successful meeting. Review the agenda and rehearse in your mind how you want to manage each item. Do everything you can to encourage healthy discussion, but keep the meeting running on time. And don’t hesitate to participate. There is no reason for you to be saying, “I’m not sure if it is appropriate for me to talk now.”

If you are interested in learning more about this topic or about other board governance issues and strategies, contact Jeff Wahlstrom at [email protected] or (207) 992-4400.