Chairing isn’t chairmanship

Anyone can run a meeting. It takes a certain kind of leadership to run a successful board
By Cooper Langford

Here’s a simple question: What is the most important skill the chair brings to a board of directors? Answer: The ability to lead so that the decision-making process is both efficient and effective.

While there’s no doubt today that individuals with such leadership ability are in high demand, pat answers like that offer little insight into how they get the job done. Nor do they tell people how to acquire the necessary skills.

For that, you have to put the question to someone like David Brown, executive director at Halton Hills, Ont.-based Brown Governance. He’ll tell you that most high-performing board chairs weren’t born with their ability; rather, they were made. “There are some people who have gifts and inherent talents,” Brown says. “But leadership tools can be learned. They can be taught and they can be embedded in an organization.”

Brown’s argument is basically a testament to his 10 years experience leading workshops for board members in the “art” of chairmanship. Working with groups of 12 to 15 individuals, the full-day sessions include detailed discussion of the chair’s role in leading the decision-making process, as well as the skills and tools individuals can apply to the task.

The centrepiece of his program is a set of “simulation” sessions aided by a professional actor, in which participants take turns at playing chair. The scenarios range from dealing with an under-performing director, to leading a fractious debate among board members over whether to sell the company. The goal of the scenarios is to build capacity and awareness amongst participants by giving them a chance to practice leadership skills, such as: corralling different personalities, calling on directors with specific experience at the right time, fostering open discussion and leading the group toward consensus. Watching others also helps participants gain insight into their own styles, strengths and weaknesses.

Garth Smorang, chair, Winnipeg Airports Authority: a balancing act

At its heart, Brown’s workshop is a psychological exercise, focused on understanding different personality types and how board chairs can use leadership tools to harness directors in productive ways. For Garth Smorang, chair of the Winnipeg Airports Authority board, that’s one of the greatest challenges of chairmanship—a task he likens to “herding cats.”

“We’ve got some amazing people, but they come with their own realities,” Smorang says. “They are used to running large businesses or large endeavours. You have a task as a board chair to take full advantage of that expertise, but at the same time you have control it.”

A balancing act, in other words, says Smorang, who has taken Brown’s workshop. That’s particularly true in his experience at the Winnipeg authority, which maintains a large 15-member board to bring in expertise from a variety of fields, including business, aviation, accounting, legal and community. The board also invites senior executives to its meetings, which sometimes opens up challenges in keeping the board focused on governance issues rather than drilling down into issues that belong to management.

Smorang, who is a labour and employment lawyer in his day job, also says the skills of managing a board’s group dynamics are important outside of meetings, especially when it comes to time spent with individual directors to build their confidence or bring out their best qualities. In the big picture, though, he likens the job of chairing a board to conducting an orchestra—maintaining the tempo, balancing the volume of different sections and bringing matters to a proper resolution.

That’s where trainers like Brown come in. He admits that, in his work, he’s preaching to a choir of clients who already believe in the value of governance training. But he also points to a growing body of commentary, research and reporting pointing to the value of tools and methods that can improve board leadership.

“A great chair is amazing to watch,” he says. “They’ll take a difficult situation, where it seems like there’s no way out, and they’ll find a way to propose, shepherd and cajole. They’ll find a way to use those skills.”

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