For most organizations, the “career path” to chairing the board becomes apparent when someone asks you to consider serving as the vice chair. At that point, it would be naïve of you to think that the path ends there. As safe as it sounds when you agree—the suggestion being that your only duty will be to fill-in at meetings if the chair can’t be there—the reality is that you have probably just been placed squarely on the path to the top spot.
So, my first bit if advice is to consider the request to take on the role of vice chair just as seriously as if they were asking you to become the board chair, because it is likely that they are one in the same—they are just easing you into the role. Don’t hesitate to ask: “To ensure that there is no confusion later, does this mean that you’ll be expecting me to be the board chair when the current board chair’s term is over?” Get a straight answer. Once you agree, they’ll be counting on you to be ready to chair the board in a year or two, so now is the time to give some careful thought to that eventuality.
Of course, the request to take on the board chair’s role doesn’t always begin this way, but no matter how it happens, here are some things to consider before you say yes:
• How deeply are you committed to the mission of the organization and the people associated with it? If you responded, “kind of,” you may want to stop here. Chairing the board is not to be approached in a half-hearted manner.
• What kind of relationship do you have with the chief executive? Ideally it is one of mutual respect, supported by open communication. You will be working closely together, supporting each other, and it will be your job to manage the board’s partnership with the chief executive. Be sure you are comfortable here.
• What do others expect? In addition to whatever job description may or may not exist, do board members or does the chief executive have specific hopes for what you’ll bring to the job? Best to know this in advance and to give some thought at to whether you can meet those expectations.
• What are the risks? Keeping in mind that you could be the one in front of the television cameras some day, do you have any significant concerns about fiscal practices, financial management, or pending legal matters? Is the organization about to lose its funding, its accreditation, or take a blow to its reputation. Better find out now.
• How is your relationship with the other board members and officers? Do you tend to be in-sync with them, or often in opposition? Do the other officers bring skills that complement your own? If not, is there a plan to add those strengths?
• Are there any major events or significant projects that will take place during your term: reaccreditation, a capital campaign, a significant retirement, or a major anniversary?
If you are feeling good about how you answered the items above, it now makes sense to consider the time commitment required and the potential impact on your work and home life. Get a realistic assessment of the time required from the current chair. Keep in mind, however, that you may approach the work differently, and it is also hard to predict what events could take place to dramatically change the time commitment.
It would be a rare person who would not feel pushed outside his or her comfort zone by becoming a nonprofit board chair (or who could respond with a “no worries” to all of the questions posed here). Don’t let the list of things to consider or a bit of discomfort stop you from accepting the job—learning new things can be great, and chairing a board can be tremendously rewarding. But do go into it with your eyes wide open, and remember, if they’ve asked you to be the vice chair, odds are that you’ll wake-up one day to find that you have become the board chair. Doing your homework now will help you set the stage for a smooth transition rather than a rude awakening.
For more information about board governance and the role of the board chair, visit Starboard’s blog: www.starboardleadership.com or contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407.