John Williams: Taking your board from good to great

Third Sector Promotion Association of Chairs

The vice-chair of the Association of Chairs explains why it's important to manage difficult board dynamics

John Williams
John Williams

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Possibly the most critical factor in good governance is creating an effective team from the often disparate and diverse individuals on your board. We are urged to ensure the maximum diversity of background, skills, styles and perspectives, then expect chairs to mould them into an effective, high-performing team. 

Yet this is an area where there is little practical guidance for chairs and trustees – psychology, emotional intelligence, empathy, even culture are not typical watchwords in the Charity Commission’s guidance. It’s an area where chairs need to lead and set the tone. And it’s not at all straightforward or easy – people are complex in their conduct and motivations, vary in their levels of self-awareness and can be unpredictable in their behaviour.

Which is why the Association of Chairs has chosen "Managing Difficult Board Dynamics" as the theme of the latest briefing in our Chair’s Challenge Series. The guide is free to download from this week.

It is often baffling that a board of people with stellar backgrounds and a wide mix of professional skills can struggle to be effective: it was why one of our earliest seminars was called "Why do good boards make bad decisions?" We identified that chairs had to create a board environment where trustees felt safe to express views, were confident in their opinions as well as their roles, felt accountable to their fellow trustees and had the ability to unify around difficult decisions without falling into group think.

While trustees share collective and equal responsibility for their decisions, board dynamics fall squarely into the chair’s lap.

Chair’s first must recognise this role and responsibility. They are the leader. They hold the key to good board meetings: steering the discussion; bringing in quieter voices; silencing those hogging the floor; summing up clearly. In particular, they must either manage those dissenting voices into alignment with the majority view or encourage debate and scrutiny if consensus feels too easily achieved.

There are plenty of clues to problems if you look, but I have sat through board meetings where some trustees have said virtually nothing and the chair has not spotted the disengagement, one of the clear warning signs of poor dynamics.

Chairs first need to know both themselves and the impact their style has on the other trustees; then be able to read the mood and culture of the board. Above all, as the new Charity Governance Code advises, the aim is to achieve constructive challenge. There is a big risk in boards that never agree on anything, but perhaps a bigger one in those that are too polite to argue and acquiesce passively.

Our new briefing lists a number of practical suggestions for building good boards, many endorsing the recommendations of the new code. But it also goes on to list some practical techniques for chairs to engage and empower trustees to be their best. Among them:

- Getting to know their trustees personally and connecting one to one from time to time (and in depth at least once a year) to hear their thoughts and any frustrations: to give and (importantly) be willing to receive feedback.

- Ensuring good quality papers with a clear steer on what is asked of the board.

- Not to close down difficult discussions too soon, leaving some trustees frustrated.

- Not dominating discussions, however passionately they feel, ideally holding back their views until others have spoken.

- A brief time at the end of board meetings to check how people felt they went.

- Trustee-only sessions: it might bring underlying tensions to the surface as trustees speak more freely, and can draw the sting of festering issues.

- Socialising: it’s harder to challenge people you don’t know well, and with only a handful of board meetings a year you need other occasions to find common connections and truly bond a board. At the least, try to have a meal before or after that strategy awayday.

- Embrace difficult conversations: you need to be honest with under-performing or absent trustees. Use your vice chair or a mentor if this is the hardest part of your role.

There is much more to share in our guide and, while the lead falls to the chair, every trustee ultimately contributes to the board dynamic. The message to them is this: always bring your best selves and help the chair turn you from good to great.

John Williams is vice-chair of the Association of Chairs

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